We spoke with Liberal MP Ralph Goodale to see why
Canada’s Bill C-51 proposes new acts and makes significant amendments to others in the name of fighting terrorism. The bill isn’t particularly long, but it is dense. C-51 expands the power of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to gather information through other state agencies. In a rare moment of democratic clarity, the federal government has introduced an extremely controversial piece of legislation on the eve of an election.
Speaking with Liberal Saskatchewan MP Ralph Goodale, he described the process that birthed C-51.
“This legislation, or some variation of it, was predicted by the government and indeed promised in very specific terms right after the events in October. There was one other bill dealing with some security issues that was already on the order paper at that time, and had been drafted well before those events and dealing largely with other issues,” said Goodale.
The events Goodale alluded to were the shootings in Ottawa that left Cpl. Nathan Cirillo dead and the parliament breeched by a gunman.
“The government said they were moving quickly within days and the reality is that piece of legislation had been drafted months ago and was simply waiting to be proceeded with. The legislation specifically developed following the events of last October was this bill, C-51,” said Goodale.
By nature, the bill is difficult and unwieldy.
“It’s an omnibus bill. It makes a couple of new acts and it amends several other pieces of legislation, including the Criminal Code and the legislation establishing the CSIS. It’s a difficult bill to assess for that reason,” said Goodale.
He went on to say, “Some things that should have been included that were left out, and some things that were included that should have been left out. It’s one of those bills that is very difficult to make a black and white adjudication.”
The Liberal Party will be voting in favour of the Conservative bill with some reservations.
“On-balance, we have decided to support the legislation, but it is far from perfect and we will be pointing out where we think the difficulties are and where the bill leaves gaps. We plan to present amendments and we hope that the government will be prepared to accept those amendments. If the government does not accept our amendments, we’ll have an opportunity very soon to present those amendments to Canadians,” said Goodale.
While the Liberals are not opposing the bill outright, they see it as an opportunity for Canadians to voice their opinion on the government’s balancing of civil liberties and security.
“The ultimate accountability here is that this legislation is not coming forward in a vacuum. It’s coming forward on the eve of an election campaign which may begin in February or March – at the very latest in September,” said Goodale.
Bill C-51 is controversial due in part to its dubious constitutionality. This will allow it to be tested in the federal legal system.
“This legislation is undoubtedly going to be tested in court. The courts, to give them credit, not uniformly in every case, but by and large, both the federal court of Canada and the Superior Courts have taken very strong positions in defense of civil liberties. This legislation, by its nature, if it were written perfectly, would be bound to be the subject of court adjudication. Very quickly you will see a body of jurisprudence grow around C-51 that will establish the common law principles by which it is applied. It will be the courts that give the law its parameters,” said Goodale.
Though Canada’s intelligence agencies are granted greater power through this legislation, common law allows these laws to be changed in practice. The recent shift in Canada’s intelligence community to counter-terrorism has caused a deficit in the numbers of agents investigating traditional crimes.
There is much concern over whether the body appointed to oversee CSIS can fulfill its role in the current climate.
“The issue of oversight is of great concern. In questioning in the house last week, the government said repeatedly, ‘There is no need for greater oversight, even though we are giving CSIS more power and authority. There is already an oversight agency and it’s called the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), it does a great job and there’s no need for anything more,’” said Goodale.
However, closer inspection of the SIRC 2014 annual report shows a different story.
“[The] SIRC does not have a full complement of members and hasn’t had for a number of years. It’s under-resourced because you are supposed to have five members, but up until recently there were at three and there is still a vacancy. What you find is they have a very small staff and they work very hard and are capable people but it’s a tiny group of people to keep tabs on an entire security agency,” said Goodale.
SIRC’s recent history as an entity has been unfortunate.
“SIRC also suffers from the embarrassment that, at one point a couple of years ago, Mr. Harper appointed a guy by the name of Arthur Porter to be the chairman of SIRC. Well, Mr. Porter is now in jail in Panama. So SIRC, for all of the government saying there’s no more oversight necessary, the fact of the matter is that SIRC is in need of a substantial upgrade for two reasons. First, to make sure that the security forces are actually keeping Canada safe. Second, and equally important, to be sure they aren’t abusing their authority and treading on civil liberties where they should not. Given the track record of Mr. Harper’s government, people are naturally a bit suspicious,” said Goodale.
Criticism of the bill is growing as a LeadNow petition against the bill currently has nearly 22,000 signatures. Concerned readers should contact their MP to voice any concerns they may have with the contents of Bill C-51. This act increases the secrecy of the federal government’s intelligence-related agencies, both in the obtaining of information and the acting on it without increasing the resources spent on overseeing such a structure, so it should be of some concern to young Canadians.