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Police officers take cover near Parliament Hilll following a shooting incident in Ottawa October 22, 2014. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Police officers take cover near Parliament Hilll following a shooting incident in Ottawa October 22, 2014. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Five key questions remain as Ottawa presses ahead with anti-terrorism bill Add to ...

Two attacks in Canada last October led the government to promise more power to thwart terrorists, and now they’re trumpeting their actions to stop “jihadists.” They’ve presented a new anti-terrorism bill – and polls suggest the public is thirsty for security measures. But Bill C-51 would give a major new mandate to Canada’s spy service, create a vaguely worded new crime, target more than just terrorism and states judges can allow spies to break the law in unspecified ways. As debate starts in the Commons, here are five big questions about the bill.

What is promoting terrorism “in general?”

One of the sections of the bill touted most loudly by Prime Minister Stephen Harper would make it illegal to promote terrorism “in general.” But even the experts don’t know what that means. It is already an offence to urge people to commit a terrorist act. What does this law add? The government suggests the new law would ensure there’s no gap if it wants to prosecute someone who urged attacks in Canada. But University of Ottawa national-security law expert Craig Forcese said there is no such gap – and the wording in the new bill is broad, vague and unrelated to legal precedents, so nobody knows what it means. Would advocating support for a rebel group in a foreign country be illegal? What kind of statements would be banned? It’s not clear.

Why does the Anti-Terrorism Act expand powers that have nothing to do with terrorism?

The title makes the bill sound as if it is specifically aimed at terrorism. It is not. Most of its provisions, such as a dramatically expanded mandate for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), apply to any activity that is considered a threat to the security of Canada. That doesn’t just mean the “jihadists” that Mr. Harper now refers to regularly. It allows government departments to share information from various databases if it relates to “activities that undermine the security of Canada” – which include things that might undermine diplomatic relations, or the country’s economic stability, or critical infrastructure. Civil liberties organizations have raised concerns it will be used to track environmental activists, for example. If the bill is being passed to address terrorism, why does it cast such a wide net?

What are “measures?”

The bill gives CSIS a new mandate to disrupt threats to national security. The actual words used are that CSIS may take “measures” to reduce the threat – but neither the bill nor the government is clear about what “measures” entail. The government says, as an example, that CSIS agents tracking a Canadian who is becoming radicalized might decide to speak to a family member. But this law allows anything short of causing bodily harm, so “measures” is not limited to chats with relatives. What measures are envisaged, and why are they defined so loosely? CSIS was deliberately denied such powers when it was created – only the RCMP could do such things, because they were more accountable. Why is that being changed now?

How does a judge decide what illegal or unconstitutional acts they can authorize?

One wholly new addition to Canadian legal principles is an assertion that CSIS agents can only violate the law or the Charter of Rights if that is authorized by a judge. But that also suggests judges would be issuing court orders to authorize a variety of illegal acts. The courts have principles for allowing specific breaches, such as a search or a wiretap, but what legal authority would they rely on to secretly approve other illegal or unconstitutional acts? “It’s a whole brave new world,” Mr. Forcese said. “We don’t have anything like it.”

Why no oversight?

The oversight of Canadian intelligence agencies is already scant, but when vast new powers are added, more oversight would normally be expected. Instead, there is stronger spy power but the same very weak review. The internal watchdog at CSIS, the inspector-general, was abolished by Mr. Harper’s government in 2012. The committee of government appointees that is supposed to review CSIS activities, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, is underfunded and stretched. And unlike our major intelligence partners, the United States and Britain, there is no parliamentary oversight to ensure governments don’t abuse intelligence powers.

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Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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