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Changes to police powers after terror attacks ‘must be measured,’ watchdogs say

Soldiers are back on guard duty Friday at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, two days after Corporal Nathan Cirillo was gunned down at the site.

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Legal changes to boost police powers after last week's terror attacks "must be measured and proportionate" to preserve Canadian democratic values, privacy watchdogs say.

The joint statement, issued Wednesday, comes from 15 privacy and information commissioners, who are raising concerns that new police powers could infringe on civil liberties and privacy rights.

"We acknowledge that security is essential to maintaining our democratic rights. At the same time, the response to such events must be measured and proportionate, and crafted so as to preserve our democratic values," the commissioners, including two federal watchdogs, wrote.

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The watchdogs called on Ottawa to "adopt an evidence-based approach" over any new laws proposed to beef up law enforcement powers, to tell Canadians about the "nature, scope and impact on rights and freedoms" of any new laws or measures, and to ensure "effective oversight" be brought in for any new powers.

"Canadians both expect and are entitled to equal protection for their privacy and access rights and for their security. We must uphold these fundamental rights that lie at the heart of Canada's democracy," the joint statement said.

The call comes as Canada prepares to hand police and law enforcement, through three separate measures, new powers to fight terrorism. All three measures raise questions of how far security efforts should infringe on personal liberties.

The first measures to take effect will be through Bill C-13, which is labelled as an anti-cyber-bullying law but contains several new warrants that could be used in terror investigations. Some of those warrants require too little evidence, critics have warned, and have extra-long durations specifically in terror cases.

The second measure is in Bill C-44, tabled Monday, which boosts powers of Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Specifically, it gives CSIS new powers to share information abroad, conduct surveillance abroad and shield the identity of its sources.

The government has, in effect, sidestepped some questions over the bill – it offered no technical briefing of its legal impacts after its tabling and initially announced it in Banff, Alta., and thereby gave parliamentary reporters no chance to ask questions. The minister who tabled it, Steven Blaney, has declined several Globe and Mail interview requests over the subject matter.

The final measure is under discussion by the Conservative government, and could include heightened preventative arrest powers and easier access to peace bonds in terror cases, which place restrictions on a suspect who has not actually been charged. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said this work would be "expedited."

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On Wednesday, Justice Minister Peter MacKay confirmed to reporters Wednesday that the government is looking at ways to prevent the promotion of terrorism online.

"There's no question that the whole issue around radicalization and the type of material that is often used that we think is inappropriate, and we think quite frankly contribute to – again this is my word – the poisoning of young minds, that this is something that needs to be examined," he told reporters on his way in to the caucus meeting.

Mr. MacKay said broad discussions are taking place inside the departments of Justice and Public Safety to review the security powers currently available and whether further legal changes are required.

Mr. MacKay said the government has not made any final decisions on what to do next. However the minister did say the government is looking at whether new powers are needed to force the removal of ‎online material that "contributes to the proliferation of terrorism or conversion."

Mr. MacKay said there would be checks on any new powers in this direction.

"I always would come down on the side of having judicial oversight for som‎e of those decisions before you would make any type of intervention," he said.

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Opposition critics have warned that government should not go too far in responding to last week's two attacks, which left two soldiers dead. One attacker, Martin Couture-Rouleau, had been under RCMP watch and had his passport seized, but not actually charged. That case in particular has spurred reviews of what powers police should have over such suspects, and how much evidence is required to charge them.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said this week that police would benefit in several cases from lower evidentiary thresholds - in other words, greater power to monitor, track or apprehend a suspect with less of an obligation to provide evidence the suspect was planning, or committed, a crime.

With files from Bill Curry

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