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Bob Rae

Bob Rae

BOB RAE

Harper got spy powers right, but civilian oversight very wrong Add to ...

Bob Rae is former premier of Ontario and a former Member of Parliament

Sometimes Stephen Harper is his own worst enemy. Recent events in Europe should bring home to all of us that there are indeed people in the midst of democratic, multiracial societies who are ready and willing to kill others in the pursuit of their religious and political beliefs. They are terrorists. They plot and communicate with others of a similar mind, and with similar intentions. They receive encouragement, and sometimes even instructions, from foreign entities and governments.

Canada is not somehow magically aloof from these realities. Our large cities are the home of millions of people from all over the world. There is no foreign conflict that does not have a direct influence on the lives and feelings of many Canadian citizens and, indeed, there are events and proposals in Canada itself to which some in Canada are strongly and irrevocably opposed. Whether these feelings give rise to a direct threat to the lives of their fellow Canadians is a matter of fact and evidence. But it would be simply foolish to argue that such threats could never happen here.

On June 23, 1985, a plane which had left Toronto for London carrying more than 300 people was blown up in mid-air off the southwestern coast of Ireland. They were Canadians, killed by their fellow Canadians. The bomb that killed them was made in Canada. The plot to make the bomb was hatched in Canada. It was the largest civilian bombing of its kind at the time, a record maintained until the attacks on the World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001.

CSIS and the RCMP had been recently split up in the wake of the Macdonald Inquiry, and the record will clearly show that their risk assessment and post-bombing investigation of the Air India attack were marred by competing rivalries, poor judgment, bad execution, and simple negligence. An exhaustive inquiry by Justice John Major some 25 years after the incident fully explored the issues and made recommendations to ensure we learn from the mistakes. I wrote a shorter report for the government on Air India calling for the broader inquiry. It was called “Lessons to be Learned”. We still need to learn the lessons of the Air India bombing and it's aftermath.

Canadians like to think that our country is a peaceable kingdom in which citizens live lives marked by reason and civility, and where nothing bad really happens. This is a quaint but dangerous notion. Dangerous, because it ignores that in all countries, Canada included, there are people living and working in our midst who are quite prepared to use violence in the furtherance of their beliefs. There are currently two trials underway in which the accused are alleged to have planned attacks on civilians. The accused in both instances are pleading not guilty and any other comment on my part would be inappropriate. But those trials are happening, and we shall hear evidence. The two soldiers in Ottawa and near Montreal were real people, who were killed by individuals, however deranged, acting in the name of their religious and political beliefs.

In Bill C-51, Mr. Harper’s government is making proposals to enhance the capacity of CSIS to gather intelligence on these and other threats to Canada and Canadians. There are additional powers to not just watch a conspiracy, but to disrupt it. The premise of the Canadian law has been, for more than 30 years, that CSIS can only intrude directly on the privacy of any Canadian with a warrant that has been approved by a judge. That premise remains. The other premise of Canadian law is that any citizen complaining of mistreatment at the hands of CSIS can apply to a separate agency, and have their case considered by an independent agency, the Security Intelligence Review Committee. I was also a member of SIRC for five years, and am familiar with its work.

Every year, SIRC publishes an annual report, which is read by a small number of Canadians, and ignored by most, including the government. Some governments have taken SIRC’s work seriously, but not Mr. Harper. His government has let vacancies for its five positions go on for months, and its best known appointment, first to SIRC, and then to its chairmanship, was Arthur Porter, now in a Panamanian prison.

For years, SIRC has asked in its reports that its powers of review needed to be broader and deeper. CSIS is not the only agency that is directly involved in watching Canadians and assessing threats to our security. From Foreign Affairs to Citizenship and Immigration, the RCMP, National Defence, and the Privy Council Office, the gathering of intelligence and the use of this intelligence happens every day. Those activities are not reviewed by SIRC.

When abuses of power became better known as a result of the Arar and other inquiries, it was a common conclusion, together with the Major Report, that robust powers of surveillance needed to be matched by robust accountability and review. This is what is missing in the reforms Mr. Harper has put before Parliament. Many of the criticisms of the bill amount to a ritual “parading of the horrors”. It is not a “secret police bill” and Canada is not a police state. CSIS cannot watch us as individuals without a warrant that has been issued by a Canadian court. I firmly believe that people who are planning to blow up a building, a subway, train, or airplane, or who want to assassinate leaders in government or opinion who are steadfastly opposed to Jihadi extremism pose a greater risk to my security than any government agency.

But I also know that those who seek to review the actions of police, spy agencies and government itself are invariably marginalized and ignored by governments. The RCMP and CSIS, let alone the Privy Council or National Defence’s CSA, are not big fans of oversight.

But Mr. Harper should be such a fan, and in refusing to deal with the accountability issue, both in his failure to take SIRC seriously, and in dismissing the chorus of concerns about oversight and review, he has failed to bring Canadians together. Instead he has chosen to divide. He cannot bring himself to celebrate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He has shown disrespect for the Chief Justice of Canada. And no doubt he will choose to criticise those who seek better accountability as naive nitwits who don’t take terrorism seriously in refusing to see the benefits of additional Parliamentary scrutiny (as Peter MacKay certainly did in opposition).

For the record, I take terrorism seriously. I know for certain it exists, and I know it poses a threat to Canadian citizens and to our country. And I also believe in better accountability and review for those agencies to whom I for one am prepared to grant powers to watch, intrude, and disrupt, provided they do so respecting our laws, including the Charter. The rule of law and justice matters to all of us, and the protection of our ancient freedoms depends on a vigorous defence of both our security and our liberty. That Mr. Harper has so chosen not to express the same thought is a pity, but then again, there is an election.

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