Canadian National Security Bill May Curtail Civil Liberties, Watchdogs Warn

Canada's Parliament building in Ottawa. (Photo: Doug Kerr/flickr/cc)

Canadian National Security Bill May Curtail Civil Liberties, Watchdogs Warn

'We must uphold these fundamental rights that lie at the heart of Canada’s democracy,' privacy commissioners say

In the wake of last week's attacks that killed two soldiers in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, privacy watchdogs fear that expanding the powers of Canadian police and intelligence agencies in the name of national security will curb personal freedoms.

The Conservative government on Monday unveiled a new bill--Bill C-44, or the 'Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act'--to beef up eavesdropping and data collection powers as well as protection for secret agents. Among other things, the bill gives the Canadian Security Intelligence System (CSIS) more powers of surveillance and extends explicit authority to Canada's spy agency to operate "within or outside Canada." This would allow the agency to share information on suspected Canadian terrorists abroad with members of the so-called 'Five Eyes' group of countries--the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand.

In addition, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney on Monday announced that "further reforms to protect Canadians from terrorism will be presented in a second forthcoming piece of legislation."

What's more, observers note that an anti-cyberbulling law currently wending its way through Canada's Parliament already includes several controversial surveillance provisions, including one that would allow police to get a court order for online records or bank account information with only reasonable grounds to "suspect," not "believe," a crime may take place or has taken place.

But critics warn that new measures to protect Canadians could infringe on citizens' right to privacy--with no assurance that they'll be effective.

"The Conservatives have hinted that they are considering preventive detention and expanded powers to snoop on Canadians with a view to finding out their political views," Karl Nerenberg wrote on Wednesday. "And that's where things can get scary."

He continued:

Above all, we have to hope that those writing new legislation realize that police-state type powers would not be effective against anonymous lone wolves of the sort who committed the acts in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa. Those killers were not, in essence, different from Jason Bourque, who shot and killed three Mounties in Moncton, New Brunswick, last June.

Bourque also makes a garbled claim to higher and more noble political motives. It does not make the Moncton shooter any less--or more--than a criminal, a murderer, whom nobody insists on calling a terrorist.

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, provincial and federal privacy commissioners' urged the Conservative government not to let counterterrorism measures trump civil liberties:

We acknowledge that security is essential to maintaining our democratic rights. At the same time, the response to such events must be measured and proportionate, and crafted so as to preserve our democratic values.

To that end, the Privacy and Information Commissioners of Canada call on the federal Government:

  • To adopt an evidence-based approach as to the need for any new legislative proposal granting additional powers for intelligence and law enforcement agencies;
  • To engage Canadians in an open and transparent dialogue on whether new measures are required, and if so, on their nature, scope, and impact on rights and freedoms;
  • To ensure that effective oversight be included in any legislation establishing additional powers for intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Canadians both expect and are entitled to equal protection for their privacy and access rights and for their security. We must uphold these fundamental rights that lie at the heart of Canada's democracy.

Also on Wednesday, a group of judges, lawyers, journalists, activists, former diplomats, academics, and community leaders gathered in Ottawa for a conference on national security and human rights hosted by Amnesty International, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, and the Centre for International Policy Studies.

While the conference, held to mark 10 years since the establishment of a judicial inquiry into the human rights violations of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, had been scheduled long before the last week's killings, the agenda was quite relevant to the conversation on national security.

In the Ottawa Citizen on Wednesday, three human rights advocates--Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada; John Packer, Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa; and Roch Tasse, National Coordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group--cautioned policymakers to balance personal freedoms with national security.

They wrote:

The risk to all our fundamental freedoms--to our democracy--is real.

It is not enough simply to assert that Canada's national security practices will take account of human rights. It needs concrete and precise action.

There must be redress for the many individuals who have suffered security-related human rights violations, as confirmed by some of Canada's most senior judges.

And very significantly, review and oversight of agencies and departments involved in national security must be strengthened.

It would be perilous to move ahead with another round of national security law reform unless past human rights violations are remedied and Canada's national security review and oversight gap is--finally--addressed. Otherwise, what exactly are we protecting?

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