Look up, way way up

Will Canadians look over their shoulders as government funds drone surveillance technology?

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    A drone hovers over a park in Ottawa, Canada during a demonstration flight [Getty]
    A drone hovers over a park in Ottawa, Canada during a demonstration flight [Getty]

    It's no wonder that, this week, Canadians nervously cracked jokes about an Orwellian future in which drones zip up to highrise windows to spy on citizens going about their daily business.

    That's because, on Monday, Industry Minister James Moore announced a $75 million "repayable contribution" to Ontario's L-3 Wescam, a division of the New York-based L-3 Communications, for airborne surveillance technology research.

    "Simply put, Wescam technology is helping to keep Canadians safe both at home and abroad," he said, looking forward to "the next generation of cameras and sensors".

    Governments tightening rules on use of drones

    Note that, during his brief announcement, Moore never used the "drone" word. But, flanked by solemn lab coat-wearing Wescam workers, he did go on about technology that could track down bad guys in Canada's deep forests, and how the funding would produce  surveillance equipment "essential to Canadians' defence, security and search and rescue operations".

    The 'drone' word

    But, because the investment falls under this country's Strategic Aerospace and Defence Initiative (SADI), because Wescam is our "largest manufacturer of defense and security" and because Canada ranks as the world's third largest exporter of drones after the US and Israel,  all the headlines and online comments screamed "drones".

    The cynical derided Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government for finally investing in Ontario manufacturing now that his dream of creating a petro superpower is tanking along with oil prices.

    But the paranoid had something more menacing in mind.

    Forgivable really seeing how Harper, who is facing an election this year, is sending the fear factor into the red zone, sowing seeds of anti-Muslim prejudice, while ignoring any mention of the economy, jobs, climate change and a long-overdue federal budget.

    Instead, this week, the House of Commons began furiously debating the extension and expansion of Harper's ISIL mission into Syria - and into next year.

    While introducing his motion to the House of Commons on Tuesday, Harper
    stated that "ISIL has made it clear that it targets by name Canada and Canadians. Why? It is for the same reason it targets so many groups, in fact for the same reason it targets most of humanity. In ISIL's view, anyone who does not accept its perverted version of religion should be killed. It is ... far from an idle threat."

    It's easy to understand why mental images of spy drones tearing along pipelines, protest marches or picket lines would make citizens uneasy about the intentions of a government which has proposed anti-union legislation, unlawfully arrested a thousand anti-G20 demonstrators ...

     

    At the same time, nation-wide alarm bells on both sides of the political spectrum are sounding over Harper's Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015, increasingly known as the "Big Brother" law.

    New security intelligence

    Constitutional and legal experts warn that it "enacts a new security intelligence  information sharing  statute of  vast  scope  with no  enhanced protections for privacy". Without providing Parliamentary oversight, it empowers Canada's police forces and spy agencies to deem even "civil disobedience activities  and illegal protests or strikes" as terrorist acts.

    That strikes many groups, especially environmentalists and First Nations, as particularly threatening.

    One prominent activist, Mi'kmaq lawyer Pam Palmater who currently holds the chair in indigenous governance at Toronto's Ryerson University, told Parliament's house safety committee that, under C-51, First Nations demonstrating to protect their water or land could be arrested as insurgents.

    "The second we do a round dance in the street without a permit, it becomes unlawful," she asserted.

    Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president Grand Chief Stewart  followed her, noting "[T]his bill is less about jihadists under every bed … and more about increasing the output of the tarsands, and facilitating the heavy oil pipeline proposals across the country, and will serve to severely undermine the constitutional and human rights of indigenous peoples."

    Bill C-51 also aims at any "activity that undermines the security of Canada," including "the economic or financial stability of Canada".

    In this context, it's easy to understand why mental images of spy drones tearing along pipelines, protest marches or picket lines would make citizens uneasy about the intentions of a government which has proposed anti-union legislation, unlawfully arrested a thousand anti-G20 demonstrators and deployed Canada Revenue agents into environmental organisations to probe their political activities.

    Terror suspect radar

    Two weeks ago, Tim Takaro, a climate change scientist at British Columbia's Simon Fraser University, reported that he had received an "intimidating, threatening" call from the RCMP because he had been spotted shooting pictures on a mountain near the site of the proposed - and protested - Kinder Morgan pipeline.

    Takaro wasn't the only target. Last fall, Lesslie Askin, a retired systems analyst and grandmother, was also on the RCMP's terror suspect radar for photographing the site.

    "To me this says that any peaceful blockade or environmentalist obstructing a pipeline could be seen as a threat to national security," Takaro told CBC News. "So this whole thing has me very nervous."

    And who wouldn't be nervous given everything now going on in the nation's capital?

    So nobody should be surprised if many Canadians feel that it's just a matter of time before the Harper government launches its game of drones against its own citizens.

    Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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