Last Tuesday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), announced that they had made a series of arrests over the previous weekend at Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport.
The operation was carried out “in order to disrupt the plans of 10 young Montreal residents suspected of wanting to leave the country to join jihadist groups”.
Interestingly, the arrests coincided almost to the day with the release of the government’s “2014 Public Report On The Terrorist Threat To Canada“, which focused on “travel abroad for terrorism-related purposes”.
In any case, the Montreal detainees, most of whom are ostensibly minors, were not identified. Nor were they jailed or charged.
But their passports were confiscated and, while the conditions of their release were not detailed, we can assume that their parents will be taking away their social media privileges to keep them from being further “radicalised”.
Had they succeeded in their flight attempt, they would have followed at least seven other Montreal youths who apparently joined ISIL. But, for now, they’re in the same situation as some 15 other young people who were arrested pre-emptively but also quickly released.
Still, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney trotted out his government’s familiar terrorists-are-among-us talking points.
“The international jihadist movement has declared war on Canada,” he said in a statement, thanking his security troops “for their continued vigilance in keeping our streets and communities safe from the ongoing global terror threat”.
Since the detainees apparently are back, if not in the streets, then at least in their communities, Canadians likely never had much to fear from the “Montreal 10” – which is what one news network dubbed the youths caught in these so-called “Terror Arrests”.
But then, in Canada, it’s almost impossible – for now, anyway – to hold citizens for what they may be thinking, or even thinking of doing, at least not without substantial evidence that they’re thinking of committing a crime or a terrorist act.
In Canada, it’s almost impossible – for now, anyway – to hold citizens for what they may be thinking, or even thinking of doing, at least not without substantial evidence that they’re thinking of committing a crime or a terrorist act.
And, for the record, Canadians do – still – have a constitutional right “to enter, remain in, and leave Canada”.
In fact, Blaney declared as much last fall: “Let me be very clear: We are really not contemplating exit controls; we’ll leave it to totalitarian [states].”
But it looks like that determination changed just days later.
First, Martin Couture-Rouleau, who had been arrested at the airport last summer when he tried to fly to Turkey after converting to Islam, growing a beard and displaying erratic behaviour, ran down two Canadian soldiers, killing one.
Then, yet another supposed “radicalised” convert, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, gunned down an unarmed guard at Ottawa’s National War Memorial before storming Parliament Hill where Harper infamously hid in a closet until the all-clear was sounded.
That neither man showed signs of much more than mental illness did not matter. It all played very nicely into Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “Fear Factor” re-election strategy.
This is why, last week, two days after the Montreal arrests and at the same airport, Harper appeared against a backdrop of police vehicles, law enforcement officers and a giant Canadian flag, warning that “the threat of violent jihadism … is a present day reality here in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada”.
Which is what he’s been saying for months, as his government rams through its Bill C-51, less commonly known as “An Act to enact the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act and the Secure Air Travel Act, to amend the Criminal Code, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts”.
Or as hundreds of legal experts more briefly call it: “unconstitutional”.
It aims to vastly expand government powers to detain people who have actually done nothing wrong because, as was demonstrated in the case of Couture-Rouleau, it’s easier to jail people than to track all their moves.
But the cure could be worse than the disease.
“[Y]ou could start incarcerating people who would never actually make the step to violence,” cautions University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese, an outspoken critic of C-51.
“Still, you have now branded them terrorists and incarcerated them in facilities with doubtful counterviolent extremism capacities. The result may be to turn prisons into radicalisation laboratories. Put another way, be careful what you wish for in terms of new terrorism criminal law.”
Right now Canada has a complex web of seemingly disorganised and disconnected laws related to terrorism, including the Passport Order. Recently proposed amendments would grant the government absolute power on disclosing information related to its decision to revoke or refuse a passport.
It’s as if the Harper government wants to strip Canadians of their constitutional rights, even though last week’s arrests proved that the system works under the current legislative regime.
“A complex problem usually requires a complex solution, not easily advanced in a political environment that quickly invokes tough-on-crime polemics,” insists Forcese. “Our problem in Canada is that punitive law of various forms is close to the only tool available, and if your only tool is a hammer, the risk is that you’ll start approaching everything as a nail.”
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.