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Legal hotline for UofT students a ‘reminder of the rule of law,’ professor says

Thursday, September 19, 2019 @ 11:45 AM | By Amanda Jerome


The National Security Student Hotline created for University of Toronto (UofT) students who have been approached by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) serves as a deterrent, an educational tool and a reminder of the rule of law, a law professor involved with the hotline’s launch has said.

Anver Emon, a UofT professor of law and history as well as director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, was inspired to create the hotline after stories surfaced in the press in 2018 about Muslim students at UofT being approached by CSIS field agents.

Anver Emon image

Anver Emon, University of Toronto

“There was never a clear sense of what attracted CSIS to the students, but what I kept hearing was how there was always a denigration of legal counsel. So, if the student wanted to get legal advice, the field agent would say ‘that just makes you look more guilty,’ ” he said, noting students’ vulnerability.

Emon worried that being approached by CSIS would have a “chilling effect on the scope of speech and activities that those students would want to do while exploring their own identity” at the university.

“I wanted to preserve the kind of academic freedom we cherish at the university, not just the faculty, but for students as well,” he explained.

The hotline is a collaborative effort between the Institute of Islamic Studies, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association and Downtown Legal Services.

Although the hotline was inspired by issues faced by Muslim students, and is a collaboration between different Muslim groups, Emon stressed that the hotline is open to all UofT students.

“The inspiration for the hotline was that Muslim students were being targeted by CSIS field agents, [but] since then we’ve learned anecdotally that Tamil students are also approached, Sikh students, students of colour, often Black Lives Matter activists who are also students, environmental activists as well who are protesting. It doesn’t matter what race [or] ideology you have, these are all different forms of protest politics that can sometimes be seen as too radical by the state. And I understand the state’s concern, but they’re still students and they still need to learn and be fully aware of their rights under the law. It’s an exercise in education and rights promotion that comes from a very specific incidents around Muslims and CSIS, but it’s a service provided for all who are, nonetheless, caught within a larger net,” he explained.

Emon noted that while CSIS has operated off the ground rule that it doesn’t come on campus, for schools in urban areas where students live and work off campus, lines can become blurred.

“University campuses are considered special zones of protection because of a certain concern around academic freedom,” he said, adding that the challenge for an urban campus like UofT is “it’s not always clear where the university ends.”

“We know the geographic terrain of the university. However, we have students who live off campus; we have students who, through externships, get course credit for work they do off campus. So, the on campus/off campus distinction has been a vehicle by which CSIS respected the integrity of the university as a corporate entity and the university demanded that respect of its corporate identity. The problem is that students move, students are walking and in a space like Toronto you could be a student and go to class at Sidney Smith [Hall] and then by lunch time you’re over at Queen’s Park protesting,” he explained, adding that the on campus/off campus distinction is important, but it’s “not decisive or determinative of the kinds of care we would like CSIS to show towards our students.”

The hotline had been beta tested for several months before its formal launch on Aug. 11, but since then, Emon said, there have been no calls.

However, the lack of calls is not surprising to Emon because he noted the hotline has a “deterrent effect.”

“One of the features of the hotline is that it has a deterrent effect, so that if in fact CSIS were to approach our students, there’s an awareness within the Toronto branch that we exist. I am not surprised that we haven’t received any [calls], but I think it is still early days. National security remains an ongoing issue and we are grateful that institutions like CSIS exist to protect Canadians and certainly they have an important role to play, but our hotline exists also to protect Canadians when there might be a certain overreach. That’s all we’re doing. We’re just here to educate students, but also identify those moments of overreach happening in the course of, maybe, an over exuberant field agent,” he said.

Emon said that Canada’s system of government works on “checks and balances and the virtue of the rule of law is that we are mindful of the importance of those checks and balances.”

“So to the extent that the rule of law is weak we might see excess; when it’s strong we don’t,” he explained, noting that the hotline is a “reminder of the rule of law that Canada still lives under.”

Other universities across Canada have expressed interest in launching their own hotlines and Emon has been in discussions with them about where to begin.

“We have created a model that we are sharing with those universities, so that they can understand what goes into developing this locally within their legal and professional communities,” he said, adding that he’s not able to discuss which universities have been inspired at this time.

“I do think that academic freedom remains one of the core virtues that we at the university can maintain as we also think about developing tomorrow’s civic leaders. And if we allow too much policing of students, whether on or off campus, we risk what kind of civic leaders we’ll have tomorrow,” he explained.

Emon stressed that the hotline is not technically a UofT program but is done through his office at the Institute of Islamic Studies in collaboration with community organizations. He said any lawyers interested in volunteering with the hotline should contact the Institute of Islamic Studies.

John Townsend, head of media relations at CSIS, said there may be instances in which CSIS’ “lawfully authorized investigations come into contact with individuals associated with Canadian fundamental institutions such as religious institutions and academia.”

“Any such investigation is subject to additional safeguards and requirements, including review by the National Security Intelligence Review Agency,” he added.

Townsend said that when CSIS seeks co-operation or assistance from Canadians it “emphasize that discussions are voluntary.”

“CSIS ensures our approach is lawful, ethical, necessary and proportionate. ‎It is important to understand that CSIS respects the confidentiality, discretion and the privacy rights of those with whom we interact. To be clear, it is long-standing CSIS policy that employees must identify themselves and state the purpose of an interview. In addition, it is against CSIS policy for CSIS employees to discourage anyone from seeking legal advice,” he explained.

Downtown Legal Services did not reply to request for comment before press time.