New terrorism threats may well warrant new spying powers, says the official now in charge of scrutinizing Canada’s intelligence agency, a former Conservative public-safety minister.

“Terrorists, they don’t have borders,” Pierre Blais said in an interview. “…When they decide to put a bomb somewhere – the railroad, or in Parliament – they don’t care. They just do it.… Governments have to adapt to that with their legislation.

“We know that CSIS sometimes has to be more intrusive. And I think, the Canadian population accepts that.”

The 66-year-old former politician and judge spoke to The Globe and Mail as Parliament debated controversial new security legislation, Bill C-51. It was his first interview since May, when he was named chair of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the watchdog for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Over the years, many Conservative government appointments to courts and review bodies have been controversial. Critics question whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to remake the government in his own image, and whether appointees once close to the executive branch can be sufficiently independent outside it.

“My reputation is that I’m independent, I’m straightforward, and nobody will try me,” Mr. Blais said. “If we believe there is something wrong, we will say that.”

The SIRC is the one agency in the federal government that can probe secret intelligence operations and publicly raise questions about them. In this way, SIRC acts as a proxy for Parliamentarians. Unlike every other G7 nation, Canada does not afford its legislators direct insights into what its spies do.

The Conservatives have been cagey about how CSIS might exercise the new powers it would get under C-51. But the spy agency’s director, Michel Coulombe, has recently been explicit. “It could go into disrupting a financial transaction done through the Internet, disabling a mobile device used in support of terrorist activities, and tampering with equipment,” he testified to Parliament.

All this would happen in secrecy save for two outside referees: the Federal Court judges who must approve the CSIS disruption warrants, and the SIRC staffers who will review how the powers were exercised.

SIRC has nearly 20 full-time employees who pull CSIS records and grill intelligence officers. But they are led by five part-time political appointees, privy councillors who meet about a half-dozen times a year.

What makes Mr. Blais an intriguing choice to chair this group is that he was the minister responsible for CSIS in its early years. That was in the 1980s, when he was an MP and Conservative public-safety minister (or solicitor-general, as the portfolio was then known).

In the 1990s, the Liberals appointed him a Federal Court judge, which was where he became familiar with secret CSIS-related court hearings. By law, only government lawyers can be at many of these hearings.

Mr. Blais “did not seem troubled at all by the secrecy aspect of the proceedings,” defence lawyer Peter Lindsay said, recalling a 2004 government “security-certificate” deportation case in which he represented Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel.

Such cases are heard partly in open courts and partly in closed courts. Mr. Lindsay provided The Globe a transcript that showed he went out for lunch during one of the public sessions, and when he came back, he asked then-Judge Blais when the most recent in camera meeting was.

“Over lunch,” was the reply.

Asked about this, Mr. Blais said he could not discuss cases, save for the fact that it was the law, and not him, that encouraged secret hearings. He added that he takes his oaths seriously. “For me, a secret remains a secret.”

In 2009, Conservatives appointed him Chief Justice of the appellate court. Upon his swearing in, he said he would be the opposite of an activist judge.

“I see my duties and my responsibilities as a judge not to create legislation, not to change legislation, not to tell the government what direction it should take, not at all,” he said, according to a transcript

Mr. Blais retired in 2014, the year he co-wrote a ruling that upset CSIS.

The case had concerned whether CSIS can use the resources of allied agencies in its surveillance operations against Canadian terrorism suspects abroad. The ruling curtailed a broad range of foreign spying operations.

“The Court of Appeal has left CSIS in the dark,” said a government appeal brief filed in the case. The Supreme Court will conduct a review in October.

Mr. Blais comes to the post of SIRC chair with an almost unparalleled knowledge of CSIS operations, but he has a rival in this respect: the government’s other new appointee to the SIRC board, Marie-Lucie Morin, the Prime Minister’s former national-security adviser.

Leaked documents from 2009 show Ms. Morin led meetings in Ottawa with Mr. Harper and the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary to hammer out a continental-security accord. “Intelligence sharing between our countries is back on track after some unfortunate cases,” she was quoted as saying in a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. The document did not indicate what problems she was talking about.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Jun. 04 2015, 3:00 AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Jun. 04 2015, 6:57 AM EDT