Skip to main content

Minister of Justice Peter MacKay responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 3, 2014.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

One of the Conservative cabinet ministers responsible for Ottawa's new anti-terrorism legislation once advocated parliamentary oversight of Canada's spy agencies, which the government now rejects as unnecessary even as it expands the powers of this country's national security apparatus.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay stood beside Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week when the government unveiled a bill that would give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service new authority to disrupt terror plots and lengthen the number of days individuals can be held on suspicion they may commit terror acts.

As deputy leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, Mr. MacKay argued forcefully for giving MPs and senators a role in overseeing Canadian spies. "When you talk about a credible oversight body, I would suggest … that a parliamentary body is going to have more credibility because of its independence and because of the fact that there is also parliamentary accountability that will be brought to bear," Mr. MacKay said in October of that year.

"To that end, I suggest that it would also cause a little bit more diligence on the part of the security agents themselves, just knowing that this oversight body was in place."

Asked to comment Monday, Mr. MacKay said circumstances have altered his opinion. "A great deal has changed since 2005 with respect to international security and the terrorism threat facing Canada. Parliament itself has become a target of terrorism," he stated.

"The threats – including cyber terrorism – have become far more complex and wide-ranging than they were nine years ago, we need specific, independent, arm's length expertise on this very pressing file."

Opposition parties today echo Mr. MacKay's argument from 2005 in their criticism of the Bill C-51, known as the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015.

But the Tories play down the need for additional oversight by parliamentarians, refusing to yield to accusations that its legislation opens the door to abuse of power by law enforcement or threatens the rights and freedoms of Canadians. The government says courts will act as a check and balance because judges will need to approve the use of many of these proposed national security powers and appointed watchdogs such as the Security Intelligence Review Committee already keep sufficient watch.

Mr. MacKay also said top-secret details of national security activities need to be tightly controlled today rather than shared with parliamentarians.

"On balance and in the current threat environment we can't afford to risk release of this type of information that could pose a risk to national security."

The legislation represents a major rewrite of CSIS's mandate, giving it the authority to act on terror plots rather than collecting intelligence and advising other agencies, such as the RCMP.

"It's a seismic change," said Ray Boisvert, who spent nearly three decades at CSIS, where he retired as assistant director of intelligence in 2012. He says the proposed changes will allow the agency to react faster to threats.

Canada is the only member of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing alliance, which includes the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, that does not call on legislators to oversee the work of its spy services.

In Canada, SIRC "reviews" CSIS operations once they are finished, while a single commissioner oversees the work of the Communications Security Establishment. In its latest annual report, SIRC complained about delays in obtaining information from CSIS.

Mr. Harper argues however it's the jihadis, and not police, who threaten the freedoms that Canadians cherish.

The Prime Minister was criticized by two Muslim groups for speculating last Friday about the possibility of someone promoting terrorism from a basement, "a mosque or somewhere else." In a statement, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association said the statement "regrettably cast an unjust shadow of suspicion on Canadian Muslim communities and have distorted the nature of security threats" and they asked for Mr. Harper to say he's sorry.

The Prime Minister's Office did not apologize, stating Mr. Harper's point was that radicalization can happen "anywhere."

The opposition parties have yet to indicate whether they will vote against the legislation and are instead focusing their attacks on the lack of new mechanisms to supervise the work of law-enforcement authorities.

"If you're going to give enhanced powers, you have to have enhanced oversight. That's a given," NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair told reporters.

The Liberals criticized the Conservatives for referring to oversight as "red tape," and lamented the quality of the government's appointments to SIRC.

"Let us remember this is the government that had the great judgment to appoint Arthur Porter, now in a Panama jail, to head up the Security Intelligence Review Committee," Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles