OTTAWA — The Conservative government’s top public safety and justice officials sought to quell criticism that its new anti-terror bill is too broad and would unnecessarily infringe rights and freedoms.
At the first hearing to begin the Commons’ detailed study of Bill C-51, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney clarified a couple of provisions that have been the subject of widespread criticism.
Bill C-51 allows sharing of Canadians’ private information among some 17 departments and agencies and it allows CSIS, with a judge’s prior approval, to “disrupt” perceived threats with actions that would infringe Charter rights.
However, Blaney said the new definition of threats to national security, which includes activity that interferes with “the economic or financial stability of Canada” or with critical infrastructure, will only apply to information-sharing provisions.
Blaney said that definition would not be used when it comes to granting CSIS broad new powers to disrupt activities of suspected threats to national security.
He said the spy agency would continue to use its new powers against threats to national security as they have been defined in the CSIS Act for the past 30 years.
He said the agency will not target lawful protest, advocacy or artistic expression, nor will the information-sharing provisions.
Both Blaney and Justice Minister Peter MacKay defended the ability to have 17 departments and agencies share much more information among themselves as a measure that will close gaps and modernize the federal regime.
Blaney raised the hypothetical example of someone in the Middle East who may show up at a consular office, wounded and seeking a new passport, claiming he’d lost his. Blaney suggested in that case it would raise suspicions but officials couldn’t share the information to determine if the individual was a threat.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson later raised what he said was a recent “real” example of where a suspicious person, wounded, showed up in Turkey attempting to return to Canada, saying there were barriers to sharing that information widely. He said the new legislation would have helped in that case, and said he welcomed many other of its provisions including the information-sharing powers and the new lower thresholds that will ease the ability to get peace bonds, or restrictive conditions on the liberty of persons suspected of conspiring to commit terrorist acts.
Blaney and MacKay also vigorously defended terrorist propaganda provisions, saying they would target only material that would encourage, glorify or incite acts that would constitute terror offences under the Criminal Code, and not target “broader” expressions.
Several academic critics have suggested that the new provisions would in effect chill legitimate dissent or speech, for example it could be used against an individual urging support for those fighting Russia’s incursions in Crimea or Ukraine.
Blaney used tough language in defending the ability to curb such speech.
“The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers; it started with words,” he said, turning aside Opposition objections.
Blaney also took square aim at the Opposition for failing to be supportive and respectful of law enforcement and security officials who are protecting Canadians, suggesting that they do not understand the real threat comes from the “radical jihadi terrorists who have declared war on us.”