Under existing Canadian law, there's nothing to prevent someone from holding a bake sale and giving the proceeds to Osama bin Laden.
But that is expected to change. Lloyd Axworthy, Canada's foreign affairs minister, signed the United Nations convention on the financing of terrorism on Thursday. As a signatory to the convention, Ottawa will be expected to bring its statutes into harmony with the convention, which forbids the "transfer or reception" of financial assets for terrorist ends.
Counterterrorism experts have long complained about the relative ease with which they say the approximately 50 terrorist groups and their affiliates operating in Canada are able to raise funds here. Now, experts say, Canada will most likely pass a law making fund-raising for terrorist causes - like bake sales- illegal.
But many methods alleged terrorists use - like extortion - are already prosecutable offenses here. Indeed, the circle around Ahmed Ressam, whose arrest at the US border in mid-December has set off the current concern about crossborder terrorism, apparently has financed its activities by crime: stealing phones and computers from parked cars in Montreal and using fraudulently obtained cards to extract cash from automatic tellers.
Dan Brien, spokesman for Canada's solicitor general, says even in the case of ostensibly legal fund-raising by front organizations, "It's not that Canada's powerless to prosecute," because there are conspiracy statutes that can invoked. But fund-raising for terrorists is not currently a specific offense under the Canadian Criminal Code.
In contrast, under US law it is illegal to provide "material support or resources ... knowing that they are to be used in preparation for, or in carrying out a terrorist offense." It is similarly illegal knowingly to provide "material support or resources" to any group on the United States State Department's list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.
David Harris, former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), is one of a number of experts who argue that Canada needs to emulate the US system of designating groups as terrorist organizations. "Once you have a system of designation ... each situation is evaluated on its own merits."
Such a system is reported to be under development in Ottawa. And a spokesman also says that a method for "deregistering" charitable trusts found to be fund-raising fronts for terrorist organizations is "something we're developing policy on."
But others note that Washington's list of terrorist organizations is not free of political considerations. Moreover, the idea of identifying groups as "terrorist" is fraught with civil-liberties issues, especially where the line between political advocacy and armed struggle begins to blur.
Moreover, others say, the real "fund-raising" problem is the extortion and racketeering practiced by groups who come to Canada but continue their insurgency against the governments of their homelands. The first targets of such extortioners, says David Charters of the Centre for Conflict Studies at the University of New Brunswick, are likely to be their own compatriots. And whereas the trustworthy Mountie is a national icon in Canada, "many of these people come from countries where people in uniform are not respected but feared," says Dr. Charters, and that makes it hard for police to investigate such cases.
On another front, Canadian immigration officials are taking heart from a recent court decision expected to make it easier to deport known or suspected terrorists from this country.
In an important test case, the Federal Court of Appeal in Ottawa ruled Jan. 18 that known or suspected terrorists can be deported even if they face the risk of torture in their lands of origin. Such is the case of Manickavasagam Suresh, a fund-raiser for two groups the US identifies as "known front organizations" for the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group seeking an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. He was ordered deported in 1997. The deportation was not carried out, however, because Mr. Suresh was deemed at risk of torture in Sri Lanka.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms forbids the practice of torture in Canada, and some defense lawyers have argued that this means that someone cannot be deported to a country where he or she faces risk of torture. But Federal Court Justice Joseph Robertson ruled, "To the extent that Canada is not already a haven for terrorists, the government has a legitimate right to ensure that it does not become such."
Suresh is unlikely to be leaving Canada any time soon: His lawyer has won a stay of deportation, and his case may well end up before the Supreme Court of Canada. But if he is deported, immigration authorities have a list of about a dozen other known or suspected terrorists they would like to remove from the country as well.
"We're very happy with the reasons given for the ruling," says Immigration Canada spokesman Ren Mercier, though he adds, "We still have to have the order to deport him."
"It's an extremely hopeful sign," says Mr. Harris, the former CSIS official, now a consultant in Ottawa.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society