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Anti-terror bill powers ‘excessive,’ Canada’s Privacy Commissioner says

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, seen in 2014, says Bill C-51 provides great power to federal agencies with little oversight.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The government's anti-terrorism bill provides excessive powers to federal agencies to monitor and profile ordinary Canadians as part of the war on terror, the Privacy Commissioner is arguing.

"All Canadians – not only terrorism suspects – will be caught in this web," Daniel Therrien said in an open-letter published in The Globe and Mail. "Bill C-51 opens the door to collecting, analyzing and potentially keeping forever the personal information of all Canadians in order to find the virtual needle in the haystack. To my mind, that goes too far."

The government's hand-picked watchdog has put together a full critique of the legislation, which he will release Friday morning and discuss in front of the committee that will start studying the legislation next week.

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"While the potential to know virtually everything about everyone may well identify some new threats, the loss of privacy is clearly excessive," Mr. Therrien said.

He added that Canadians have an expectation of privacy when they provide information to the government, and that the legislation fails to strike an appropriate balance between safety and privacy.

"The end result is that national security agencies would potentially be aware of all interactions that all Canadians have with their government. That would include, for example, a person's tax information and details about a person's business and vacation travel," Mr. Therrien said.

Bill C-51 would beef up the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, criminalize the promotion of terrorism and provide the RCMP with new powers of preventative arrest. But the Privacy Commissioner is decrying the fact that 14 of the 17 federal agencies that are receiving "limitless" powers under C-51 are "not subject to independent oversight."

The criticism comes as the RCMP will release on Friday a video that was made by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau before his attack against the National War Memorial and Parliament on Oct. 22. Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau made comments of a political and religious nature in his video, according to the RCMP.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a number of references to Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau when he unveiled the proposed Anti-terrorism Act in January, using the attack as an example of the "stark reality" of jihadi terrorism on Canadian soil.

Liberal MP Wayne Easter said the Prime Minister is engaged in "inflated wording" when he uses the example to justify the introduction of new legislation.

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"His act was an act of terrorism. Was he a terrorist? That's an open question that will be determined [at the hearing]," Mr. Easter said of Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau.

Mr. Easter added that it might be impossible to determine whether C-51 would have done anything in the case of the Ottawa shooter.

"The problem is that there are no absolutes when it comes to determining whether the legislation would have helped to prevent this act," he said.

NDP MP Rosane Doré Lefebvre said law-enforcement authorities have thwarted a number of attacks using existing legislation, which raises questions about the need for Bill C-51.

"Are these new tools really necessary? That is one of our concerns," she said.

Both the NDP and the Liberal Party have called for parliamentary oversight of Canada's anti-terrorism agencies.

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Mr. Harper, however, said this week that he sees no need to amend the legislation, and the government has said existing oversight mechanisms are adequate to handle the increased workload that will come with the new powers. The government has been particularly critical of the opposition's request to create a new committee of MPs to oversee the operations of Canada's security agencies, stating it would create political interference in the process.

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