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Communications Security Establishment Chief Greta Bossenmaier speaks with Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Ralph Goodale as they wait to appear before the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, in Ottawa, on Nov. 30, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/The Globe and Mail

The Liberal government's sweeping national security bill will make it easier to combat homegrown extremism by improving flawed anti-terror provisions, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says.

Goodale pointed Thursday to a measure in the bill that would clarify a prohibition against promoting terrorism offences in general – a provision on the books he calls "virtually unusable" because it is too vague.

The Liberal government's security legislation, tabled in June, would narrow that wording and flesh out campaign promises to revise other elements of C-51, a contentious omnibus bill brought in by the Harper government after a gunman stormed Parliament Hill in October 2014.

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The Liberal bill would limit – but not eliminate – powers that allow Canada's spy agency to actively disrupt terror plots, ensuring such operations are compliant with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It also forges new paths for Canada's security services in crunching huge datasets and waging cyberoperations, and bolsters accountability and review in the often maze-like world of intelligence.

The legislation has drawn barbs from both major opposition parties. The Conservatives accuse the government of being soft on terrorism, while the NDP say the Liberals haven't done enough to reverse the Harper-era measures.

Goodale told the House of Commons public safety committee Thursday that simply repealing all of C-51 would be "like trying to unscramble eggs" because pieces are now embedded in different laws.

NDP public safety critic Matthew Dube dismissed the notion Bill C-51 could not be rescinded in its entirety, noting that a caucus colleague has introduced a private member's bill that would do so.

Goodale said the Liberal bill is based on the most extensive consultation on national security ever undertaken in Canada.

Still, dozens of leading civil society voices are calling for changes to the bill to protect privacy and freedoms.

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The Liberals are taking steps to make security laws consistent with the charter, but that's not the real issue, said Tim McSorley, national co-ordinator of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.

The important question is "whether or not we want to be engaging in mass surveillance or having secret disruption activities," said McSorley, who attended the hearing Thursday.

"We didn't really hear much that would assuage our concerns."

The debate is coloured by "a kind of fearmongering and xenophobia" that prompts concerns, he added. "The climate in general is trying to push security bills to respond to a fear that is really unjustified."

The Liberals are under persistent pressure from the Conservatives to demonstrate vigilance about jihadists returning to Canada from the battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq.

"We believe we need a robust set of measures to deal with the terrorist threat," Goodale said after the meeting.

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He stressed reliance on programs to deter radicalization in the first place as well as surveillance, police measures, threat-reduction powers, no-fly lists and peace bonds to restrain dangerous people. "You need all of those things together, including a prevention effort."

Goodale acknowledged hurdles in prosecuting returnees due to the difficulty of turning secret intelligence into evidence that will stand up in court.

"That's a challenge not just for Canada but for every democratic country around the world," he said.

"It will require further examination and legal analysis to figure out what is the right way to get over this problem."

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