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Toronto’s Public Hearing on Bill C-51 Was Utterly Demoralizing

We're screwed.

On Wednesday evening, the Canadian government held a public hearing in Toronto on reforming Bill C-51, a controversial set of laws that give Canada's police and spy agencies broad powers. It began with a lackadaisical mood.

As observers filed into the room on the third floor of the downtown Radisson Hotel—the small number of seats that had been left available for members of the public never did fill up—parliamentary committee member Marco Mendicino was looking at his phone. "Let's go Jays!" he said, and looked at me expectantly. I'm not a baseball guy, and so I had nothing to say. One of the few audience members asked back, "What's the score?"

When Bill C-51 was passed back in 2015, there were protests in the street as Canadians argued that their privacy and personal safety was being eroded by giving the police latitude to essentially do whatever they deem is necessary to stop domestic terrorism. At the hearing in Toronto, Canada's most populous city, that furor wasn't represented in the number of people that showed up. I counted a grand total of around 60, including one toddler.

Observer and speaker Miguel Avila outside the Radisson. Photo: Author

That's not to say that the people who did show up weren't passionate. And they had good reason to be—in a green paper published by the Canadian government to inform citizens ahead of these public hearings, which have been planned in cities across the country and will wrap up Montreal and Halifax, the government opened up the possibility of giving police warrantless access to telecom subscriber information. This would constitute a concrete expansion of police powers, even under C-51's existing broad provisions.

Citizen speakers had three minutes. The first was an elderly man with dishevelled hair. He was cut off before he could get within a football field's length of his point. The next speaker got up with a stack of cue cards and began with a personal story from the 1980s. He was also cut off. After representatives from Unitarians for Social Justice said their piece—Unitarians kind of rock, honestly—a man stepped up to the mic and told the committee about how orange helicopters are accosting him and his family.

And it went on like this. A man claiming to be an engineer later told the committee that 9/11 was a false flag op perpetrated by the American government.

Read More: The Canadian Government's Plan to Sell New Spying Powers to Citizens

By the time representatives from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association stood up to make some excellent points about the limitations placed on oversight committees in the recently proposed Bill C-22, the committee members looked exhausted. When Mendicino piped up again with a follow-up question, he fumbled it and said, "I'm a little jet-lagged."

Indeed, the committee had done this same song and dance the night before in Calgary, and the night before that in Vancouver. On Thursday, they'll be in Montreal, and then Halifax.

Did the government committee members, after being beaten down by days of (one must assume) sparsely attended public hearings, hear the people who did speak out with clear and legitimate concerns about Canada's national security practices?

For example, the young woman—she had to pull down the microphone for it to reach her lips—who spoke about her concerns surrounding how long police agencies retain Canadians' data. Or the elderly man who spoke on behalf of advocacy group Queer Ontario and voiced concern about the heightened need for privacy among the queer community and the unique pressures they face from police. Or what about the white-haired woman with thick glasses who spoke about indigenous activism and worker dissent being designated as terrorism under C-51? Or the young man who said that police money could be better spent on mental health services?

Protestors outside the hotel. Photo: Author

Or 29-year-old StopC-51TO member Raj Dash, who said he had never spoken at a public consultation before, and at first refused to ask his question because he "was under the impression that I would ask questions and get them answered." Although the committee had the opportunity to ask questions of every speaker, more often than not they preferred to shuffle along to the next one without delay.

When pushed by the committee and by the audience, though, Dash asked why Bill C-51 is necessary at all. His question was not answered.

An older woman stood up and said angrily to the committee, "You encouraged him, and we all encouraged him, and he didn't get an answer."

The committee chair responded, trying to control the room, "Frankly, you're not here to consult with us," he said, "We're here to consult with you."

I caught up with Dash after the hearing to ask his thoughts. "It's like talking to the ocean," he said of the hearing's one-sided flow. "When you ask people to come out and ask questions, you should have experts to give them answers."

Minutes later, Dash and several StopC-51TO compatriots unfurled a banner emblazoned with a poop emoji and the words "CAN CONSULTATION FIX LEGISLATION?" They were escorted out of the hotel immediately.

One can only hope that the government officials who were here to listen to what Canadians had to say with their eyes down and scribbling on notepads—were they taking notes or doodling?—were paying attention.

Oh, and the Blue Jays lost.

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