Was Ottawa 'terror' arrest timed to support repressive new legislation?

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When the RCMP announced an Ottawa anti-terrorism arrest this month, the timing could not have been better for a federal government that appears to thrive on national security hysteria. After all, Prime Minister Harper, positioning himself as a wartime leader protecting Canadians from terrorists, had just introduced legislation (C-51) that would vastly increase the powers of Canada's state security agencies, a bill that's met with equal alarm from civil rights groups and the Globe and Mail's editorial board.

Facebook feeds were immediately full of Conservative-sponsored "Protecting Canadians From Terrorist Threats" clickbait, leading to a personal message from Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney proclaiming, "Jihadists have declared war on us all."

There's a critical question about the political timing of this arrest and the issuance of arrest warrants for two overseas Canadian fighters. Why was it so important, in the midst of a debate over controversial new policing powers, to now detain 25-year-old Awso Peshdary -- who appears to have been under surveillance for a good five years -- for the alleged crimes of raising money to send two Canadians to fight in Syria in 2012 and 2014? There was no imminent threat, beyond the apparently existential concern that Peshdary was corrupting young minds. In addition, why were the Mounties suddenly issuing warrants (one for a man reportedly killed last December) that named individuals whose activities have long been public knowledge?

The federal government's apparent ability to create a mirage of cascading terror threats was no doubt further enhanced by introducing C-51 the Friday before two long-scheduled terrorism proceedings were set to begin. Those trials -- the Toronto Via Rail plot and the B.C. Canada Day pressure cooker plan -- began with suspiciously timed arrests as well.

Indeed, during the spring of 2013, the Harper government had been experiencing troubles reviving recently lapsed anti-terror legislation originally passed in 2001. Then, an opportunity arose following the Boston bombings. The Harper government suddenly cleared the Parliamentary schedule for a two-day discussion and vote on Bill S-7 (The Combating Terrorism Act), which revived preventative detention and investigative hearings.

On the first of those days, April 22, the RCMP's actions once again coloured a Parliamentary debate, this time with the arrest of two individuals who had allegedly been talking about derailing a train. "While the RCMP believed that these individuals had the capacity and intent to carry out these criminal acts, there was no imminent threat to the general public, rail employees, train passengers or infrastructure," they reassured the public at an afternoon press conference.

Across town the next day, defence lawyer John Norris told media crowded on the Old City Hall courthouse steps that "the timing of the arrest is a bit of a mystery… The [RCMP have] been very clear there was no risk to public safety, and it's surprising to say the least, that this arrest would be made now close on the heels of the events in Boston and timed perfectly with what was happening in the House of Commons yesterday."

In Ottawa, NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison shared with House colleagues his fear that the Tories were using Boston and the VIA arrests "to create a climate that will cause people to not ask the questions they need to ask about this legislation." The bill passed on April 24 and received Royal Assent the following day in the Senate.

Just two months later, mere weeks before The Combating Terrorism Act came into full force, the RCMP again took to the airwaves in a patriotic flourish to announce they had foiled a Canada Day plot to set off a pressure cooker bomb at the B.C. legislature.

Questions immediately arose after RCMP Assistant Commissioner Wayne Rideout told reporters, "We employed a variety of complex investigative and covert techniques to control any opportunity the suspects had to commit harm. These devices were completely under our control, they were inert, and at no time represented a threat to public safety." As the Vancouver Province noted in an editorial, "On April 2, police had enough evidence leading to charges of facilitating a terrorist activity and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence, but the couple was not arrested. On June 25, there was enough evidence for [one of the arrestees] to be charged with making or possessing an explosive substance, but again there were no arrests." Did the RCMP stage-manage things so that the connection to Canada Day would provide them with a blast of feel-good coverage, especially following a month in which Edward Snowden's startling revelations about global surveillance had sullied the reputation of state security agencies? 

Canada's national police force has never been above playing politics. Indeed, the RCMP Complaints Commission released a 2008 report finding that an unprecedented decision to announce a politically sensitive investigation of then Liberal finance minister Ralph Goodale -- in the middle of the 2006 election campaign -- likely influenced the outcome that brought law-and-order Stephen Harper to power.

Subsequently, in the June, 2006 case of the Toronto 18 -- an informant-driven and -controlled plot -- arrests occurred 10 days before the Supreme Court was set to hear two days of historic argument on secret hearing security certificates. Needless to say, questions from the bench were clearly influenced by the recent headlines.

Other agents of government supposedly above partisanship are not immune from suspect activity either. The Ottawa Citizen recently reported that as shocked Canadians watched the parliamentary shooting saga last October, Canadian Lieutenant-General John Vance wrote an email that very afternoon about the need for the military to appear at an RCMP press conference to capitalize on the day's events. Viewing the tragedy as further rationale for the controversial decision to dispatch CF-18s to bomb Iraq, Vance noted that Canada's Chief of Defence Staff, General Tom Lawson, had "indicated we should seek a strategic opportunity [to promote the mission] and this may be it."

The Iraq bombing campaign and national security will no doubt be hot-button issues as a tight national election race heats up. What remains to be seen is how many more well-timed strategic announcements and arrests will pop up to reinforce Harper's fearful wartime narrative.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years. A version of this column first appeared in NOW Magazine.

Photo: GRC - RCMP - DIVISION C - QUÉBEC/flickr

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