Skip to main content

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews listens to Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais as they speak about witness protection programs during an announcement in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

When the federal Conservatives announced they were sending a web surveillance bill back to the drawing board, ministry staff working on the bill found out through news reports that evening.

Bill C-30, which would make it easier for police to track Canadians online, sparked a firestorm of protest when it was unveiled in early 2012 over accusations it abrogated privacy rights. In the face of that opposition the government sent the bill back to committee for revision instead of along to second reading. This opened it up to a wide range of amendments – and a much longer time frame – before being passed.

That decision caught many Public Safety staffers unawares, documents obtained by The Globe and Mail through an access to information request suggest. Further e-mails indicate bureaucrats scrambled afterwards to tweak Conservative talking points to fit the new direction.

On Feb. 15, 2012, after days of vitriolic debate over the cybercrime bill during which he accused opponents of standing "with the child pornographers," Public Safety Minister Vic Toews took a much more conciliatory tone: "We will send this legislation directly to committee for a full and wide-ranging examination of the best way to do what is right for our children," he said in Question Period.

Just before 8 p.m. that evening, someone from the Competition Bureau e-mailed several Public Safety department staffers inquiring about a Globe article saying the bill would skip second reading and go directly to committee. "Do you have any information on this and possible timing?" he asked.

"First I've heard of it," replied a policy adviser.

(Subsequent e-mails that evening found other media organizations had the same information but yielded little else.)

The temporary confusion illustrates just how quickly the Tories changed tack on a bill that went from being a major part of their majority government agenda to a piece of legislation in limbo, still awaiting amendments a year after it was brought forward in its latest form.

In the weeks following his announcement, Public Safety staffers massaged existing talking points to reflect the change in course: "There is a nuance we would like you to convey in these nine speeches" being prepared for Tory MPs to read during debates, a senior Public Safety adviser wrote in a directive to speechwriters Feb. 24. "The bill will be called at second reading but will *not* be read a second time. … Although the Minister cannot speak to pointed amendments the government is considering in the speeches, he can indicate that the government is open to considering virtually any amendment at Committee."

There was further confusion as to how much emphasis to put on the government's backtrack in revised speeches. "We have only made a passing reference of sending this Bill to Committee in one speech," a Feb. 29 e-mail from a speech unit manager reads. "Should we be making the reference at all?"

The same senior adviser replied later that afternoon:

"I might be inclined touch upon the significance of the Bill being sent directly to Committee in the speeches, given the fact the Minister has made numerous public declarations on this matter."

The change of plan also caused deadline headaches as staffers in the Public Safety and Justice ministries scrambled to prepare briefings under an uncertain time frame.

"We note that the Motion to move the Bill directly to Committee is not yet on the Order Paper, and may not be for some time (but who knows)," reads one Public Safety e-mail responding to a request for quick turnaround. "Until we have a good sense of when the Motion will be debated … we would appreciate more time to perfect the various deliverables we are managing."

Critics of the legislation, including federal privacy watchdog Jennifer Stoddart and her Ontario counterpart Ann Cavoukian, argue it violates Canadians' rights by giving police easy access to their information with insufficient judicial oversight. Ms. Stoddart's office has been researching ways to improve the bill.

The bill would allow police and intelligence officers access to a person's name, address, telephone number, e-mail address and Internet Protocol address without a warrant. Right now, Internet service providers give that information voluntarily.

Under the legislation, Internet service providers would need to be able to monitor user activity in real time – a potentially expensive investment that telcos hope Ottawa will help fund.