4 Lessons from Canada’s Civil Liberties Groups

In the past two weeks, 218 Canadian news articles have used the phrase “terrorism bill”, while 193 have contained the term “civil liberties”. These numbers (courtesy of Gnowit’s media-monitoring platform), reveal the degree to which Bill C-51 has captured the country’s attention. While stories related to government action are usually divisive, those surrounding the new bill are different. In opposition to the polarized reactions we often see from news sources (which are usually based on political leanings), the press seems to be (mostly) united in its desire for more information and debate.


When members of the media are searching for more information, you can be sure that many Canadian citizens are confused. According to an article in the Guelph Mercury, 57% of those surveyed say that, despite the news coverage, they’ve “barely even heard” of C-51. The confusion surrounding the bill has provided a teachable moment for those promoting public awareness of civil liberties and the political process in Canada. For example, groups like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) – which makes a number of teaching and empowerment resources available on its website – are committed to educating the public about these issues.


While many members of the press have used colourful language to criticize the government’s recent bill (some employing hyberbole, sarcasm, or humour), preeminent civil liberties groups have made their positions known in other ways: through succinct and tactful (yet firm) declarations. As we continue to be bombarded by opinionated editorials and public assumptions, we should keep the responses of these organizations in mind – they may have more to teach us than we realize. Without further ado, four recent lessons from Canada’s civil liberties groups.

There’s strength in numbers


Anyone who’s ever voted or been part of a union is sure to understand this principle: individuals are far more likely to be heard when they unite to express shared opinions and positions.  Advocacy groups provide clear illustrations of this truism.


In response to Bill C-51, some of Canada’s leading civil liberties organizations have published a joint press release expressing their concerns. The document was coauthored by Amnesty International Canada, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, La Ligue des Droits et Libertes and the National Council for Canadian Muslims. In its opening paragraphs, the press release focuses on the overarching issue it addresses: namely, the amount of time the government has set aside to hear relevant experts, which many have criticized as woefully insufficient. The remainder is devoted to a collection of quotes, each of which succinctly sums up the position of the organizations that issued it.


The document is short, but that’s one of it strengths. At a time when a powerful punch can be packed into a 140-character tweet (and attention spans aren’t always accommodating of anything more), brevity is vital. That each organization is able to contribute its expertise in a few lines is impressive. What’s truly powerful is the way that, in less than 1000 words, multiple perspectives come together to make a convincing case.

Keep Calm and Carry On


Is this a truism? The phrase has certainly become an enduring part of pop culture. Perhaps more fittingly for our purposes, it was printed on posters by a UK government department near the outbreak of the second world war.


Maintaining some level of composure during distressing events has its benefits. Of course, this isn’t always possible. But in the realm of communication, where linguistic slip-ups can compromise credibility, it’s important to maintain a clear head. Since the latest piece of anti-terror legislation was introduced, several Canadian civil liberties groups have revealed the most effective way of responding to those who hold opinions that oppose your own. That is, with clear, unambiguous, fact-based statements that don’t appeal to fear or sensationalism. Few are those that come out of a war of words looking good.


In its initial response to Bill C-51, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association used diplomatic language to point out elements it finds problematic. A document posted to the group’s website on February 1st stated,“[t]he CCLA believes Canadians know rhetoric is not enough from any stakeholder”. It would be hard to find an editorial that conveys such tact without sacrificing the clarity of its message. Similarly, in a recent interview, Roche Tasse – president of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), a coalition that includes some of the other organizations mentioned in this post – provides a number of practical concerns and disconcerting scenarios without relying on emotionally-charged language to make his points.


Mistaking unchecked emotion for a compelling argument is not uncommon, even among those in the political realm. Whether you’re in a debate, or you’re trying to educate someone unfamiliar with your point of view, keeping a level head is an effective rhetorical strategy.

History is the greatest teacher


We’ve all heard some variation of the saying, “those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them”. In a February 3rd posting on its website, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) charges the federal government with failing to learn the “hard lessons” that lead to the creation of CSIS in the 1980s. By referring to the past “illegal activities and civil rights abuses” of the RCMP, the post’s author invokes the power of precedent to strengthen her claims.


The BCCLA wasn’t the only advocate to cite past events in a recent criticism. In his aforementioned interview, Roche Tasse lamented that “[t]here is no historical memory (or much) on the Hill”. He recalls fairly recent breakthroughs, such as the 2001 recommendations of Justice O’Connor (some will recall the Maher Arar case that spawned the inquiry leading to these changes). Ultimately, Tasse worries that, if Bill C-51 is not repealed, we will have “gone 40 years backward in the security regime of this country”.


Understanding our history is an important part of understanding ourselves. Whether we want to avoid repeating grave national injustices or self-defeating personal behaviours, recognizing the reasons for past errors is the first step in avoiding them.

Disentangle points of view from the rhetoric that surrounds them


The use of vague, opaque, and emotionally-loaded language is a well known persuasion strategy. It’s used to varying degrees by those who communicate with the public, including politicians, journalists, celebrities, advertisers and marketers, as well as those in the public relations field. Whether you view this as ominous or not will depend on various personal factors, but one thing is certain: these kinds of linguistic strategies can, at times, lead to confusion.


Civil liberties organizations seek to bring clarity to complex and misunderstood issues affecting the communities they serve. One of the best ways of doing this is through acts of “translation”, whereby dense communications are broken down and condensed so that their potential ramifications can be easily understood. Several organizations have undertaken this process with regards to Bill C-51.


the joint press release referenced earlier calls attention to facts that seem to have gotten lost in public discussion. For example, Nicole Filion from Coordonnatrice de la Ligue de droits et liberte reminds us that that the bill, which is “very technical legislation”, “proposes two entirely new statues and extensive amendments to three”. In the post on its website, the BCCLA tells readers what they “need to know” about the legislation, spelling out its potential applications in plain English. “The bill makes it easier for innocent Canadians to wind up on Canada’s no fly list,” states the author, illustrating the legislation’s consequences through a widely-relatable situation. As a result, the message may reach those who wouldn’t otherwise engage with it.


Lastly, a recent call for action by The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) goes beyond these educational efforts, providing a list of concrete steps that can be taken by those who want to see further oversight of the recent legislation. The organization calls on Canadian Muslims to become educators by informing politicians of the true nature of their faith. In so doing, it attempts to address the public prejudices that have, to a large extent, been ingrained in the Canadian subconscious by mainstream rhetoric.

Stay Informed


Knowledge is power. It’s the insight that comes from exposing ourselves to facts and well-informed opinions. But simply studying history and staying up-to-date with current events is not enough to achieve true insight. Experts are experts because they’re able to see the bigger picture, to analyze the context surrounding relevant issues.


Fortunately, the information age has afforded us all the opportunity to view issues in their larger contexts. We can access online journals and databases, then seek supplementary information with the click of a button. We can turn up vast quantities of media commentary, tracking the dissemination of specific attitudes and opinions across the country. It’s true that this abundance of information can be overwhelming, stealing hours that could be spent more productively. But there are technologies that can deal with this problem as well, technologies that filter out irrelevant information to provide valuable insights.


The people (and organizations) who devote their time to understanding complex issues are important sources of information; when it comes to the civil liberties that affect us all, we should give their opinions weight and consideration. However, in some cases, the wisdom they provide may come in the form of simple life lessons.

Feature Image courtesy of Howard Lake

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