The attacks that killed soldiers in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., have Canadian MPs grappling with how to respond – one bill is already nearly through parliament, another was tabled days after the attacks and the government has mused openly about what new powers it may yet give police.
The collection of efforts have sparked calls for restraint – to not let the attacks spur knee-jerk counter-terrorism legislation that infringes on civil liberties. The government, however, has sidestepped many of the issues. Here’s a summary of the developments to date in the parliamentary push to fight terrorism.
The latest bill, C-44
Tabled Monday, the “ Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act” boosts the powers of Canada’s domestic spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), to share information and operate internationally. It also gives new powers for CSIS to keep its sources anonymous. The bill had been meant to be tabled on Wednesday, the same day Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed a soldier at the National War Memorial before storming the Centre Block building on Parliament Hill, where he died.
Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien has concerns with Bill C-44. He said it could lead Canadian information to be used by other governments in cases that involve torture, for instance. He cited the case of Maher Arar as a possibility that could be more easily duplicated with Bill C-44.
“If Canada shares information with other states, and that information somehow results in the mistreatment of the individual- whether with the state directly involved in information sharing with Canada, or a third state down the road in an information sharing loop – that’s obviously an area of very important concern,” Mr. Therrien told The Globe and Mail.
The new push
Bill C-44 may not be the end of it. The federal government continues to eye what new powers it will seek for police. Government ministers have mused openly about lowering how much evidence is needed to place a terror suspect under a peace bond, which allows officials to closely monitor the suspect even if they don’t have enough evidence to lay a charge. Other changes could include making it illegal to write online statements that support a terror group and expanding powers for “preventative arrest,” or arrest without a charge.
This work was underway after Martin Couture-Rouleau used his car to attack two soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., killing one of them. A day after Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s shooting, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this work would be “expedited.” However, sources have said no announcement was imminent. The RCMP Commissioner, Bob Paulson, asked for expanded powers on Oct. 27, saying police should need less evidence to get peace bonds and to access certain online and phone records. The RCMP have since declined to elaborate.
Another bill, C-13
On the same day as Mr. Couture-Rouleau‘s attack, the House passed Bill C-13. The government refers to as an anti-cyberbullying bill but it goes well beyond that. The bill contains broad new police powers, including several new warrants for surveillance, tracking and gathering of bank information that critics have said will, in some cases, require little evidence to get. The issue was raised again this week when the RCMP Commissioner called for certain evidentiary thresholds to be lowered.
Under the bill, and using the lower threshold of how much evidence is needed, police could access internet “metadata” – which critics say can reveal a lot about a person – as well as bank records and get authority to track a suspect’s vehicle. C-13 is not strictly aimed at terror cases but some of its warrants have a longer duration if issued for a terror case. This bill is moving quickly through the Senate and is set to be the first law to pass giving counter-terrorism investigators new powers since the attacks.
Backlash and warnings
The collection of changes have raised eyebrows. Canada’s privacy and information watchdogs, the Canadian Bar Association and a retired Supreme Court Justice are among those to urge the government not to go overboard in the aftermath of the shootings.
“We have robust tools currently,” Mr. Therrien, the privacy commissioner, said in an interview. “It doesn’t mean that the government cannot make the case for additional tools, but be very vigilant in asking for a clear demonstration that additional tools are required.” He was among the 15 privacy watchdogs across Canada to issue an open letter this week urging the government to be transparent about changes and ensure robust oversight.
Vancouver lawyer Eric Gottardi, who is chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s National Criminal Justice Section, echoed the concerns. He said existing powers are already strong.
“I haven’t seen any evidence or a persuasive argument for why we need more tools,” Mr. Gottardi said, later adding: “If things need little tweaks here and there, that might be appropriate. But in terms of new wide-sweeping powers or the lowering down of historically cherished [evidentiary] thresholds of police powers, I don’t know that you really need to mess with something that’s been working quite well for decades.”
Though he hasn’t reviewed Bill C-44, Former Supreme Court Justice John (Jack) Major warns government against being too quick to give itself new powers “until it was shown to be demonstrably necessary.”
Calls for oversight
As talk of new powers swirled, the Conservative government rejected a push for more oversight. By fluke of timing in the parliamentary calendar, Liberal MP Joyce Murray’s private bill to boost oversight of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE, formerly CSEC) came up for debate on Oct. 30, eight days after Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack on parliament. The CSE is Canada’s foreign-focused electronic surveillance agency.
Ms. Murray is the latest to push for parliamentary oversight of CSE, a long-simmering call coming from across partisan lines. However, the government immediately announced it would not support her bill. Even as C-44 boosts CSIS’s reach internationally, therefore putting it closer than ever to CSE, government sees no need for more scrutiny of CSE.
Three ministers have led the government’s response thus far. Foremost is Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, who tabled Bill C-44. Mr. Blaney‘s statements in the House have been confusing – he brushed aside the Liberal call for more oversight of CSE by repeatedly praising a committee that oversees CSIS, not CSE. He has declined repeated interview requests with The Globe about the bill.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has distanced himself from the use of immigration charges to arrest a suspect in one security case this week, calling it a law enforcement matter one day before he was personally represented by an official during a bail hearing in the case.
Finally, Justice Minister Peter MacKay has largely fielded questions about what new powers government is seeking going forward. Mr. MacKay has avoided specifics and said a range of options are being considered, but called it “speculation” to say if any of the powers being considered would have stopped the attacks.
Muhammad Aqeeq Ansari, a 30-year-old Ontario resident who is a citizen of Pakistan, was arrested on Oct. 27, days after the attacks. Authorities allege he poses a threat to Canada and have detained him on immigration charges with the aim of deporting him. It’s alleged he was found with jihadist propaganda and that he maintained a website for Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat, which some countries consider a terror group, though Canada does not. His family have said he is peaceful and a gun collector.
His arrest came the same day as the RCMP Commissioner and a top CSIS official told a Parliamentary committee they were reviewing their efforts in the aftermath of the attacks. Mr. Ansari was denied bail in an Oct. 31 hearing.
OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Oct. 31 2014, 9:36 PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Nov. 04 2014, 11:33 AM EST