Prime Minister Stephen Harper is swapping privacy commissioners just as his government gets set to push through new surveillance laws without formal input from privacy watchdogs or civil liberty groups.
A day after Mr. Harper nominated Daniel Therrien as Canada's next privacy commissioner, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and a former federal commissioner slammed the move, while one provincial commissioner said Mr. Therrien is "completely unknown" in privacy circles.
The appointment comes at a critical juncture: The government is rushing through Bill C-13, which gives police broad new surveillance powers over Canadians that, critics say, threatens privacy rights.
The committee considering C-13 will wrap up with witness testimony next Thursday, with Mr. Therrien yet to be approved by Parliament and his predecessor having already said it would be inappropriate to weigh in on her way out the door – suggesting neither watchdog will speak to the C-13 committee. Further, three major civil liberties groups have also been denied a chance to testify so far.
On Thursday, however, the focus was on the nominee. Mr. Mulcair said in a letter to Mr. Harper that Mr. Therrien, a career bureaucrat and Justice Department lawyer, has worked for federal agencies and initiatives that have been criticized for failing to protect privacy rights. As such, Mr. Mulcair said Mr. Therrien has "neither the neutrality nor the necessary detachment" to now be a watchdog.
A former federal privacy commissioner put it more bluntly. "It strikes me as a bizarre nomination – like putting a fox in charge of chicken security at the hen house," George Radwanski, who served as commissioner between 2000 and 2003, said when contacted by The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Radwanski said Mr. Therrien's job at Justice Canada "by its very nature involved focusing on and developing privacy-invasive measures intended to enhance public safety. And that's exactly the opposite of the pro-privacy bias any privacy commissioner should have."
In a statement, Mr. Therrien declined to respond to critiques, saying he'll speak publicly next Tuesday at a separate committee considering his appointment. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau supports the appointment, while Tory MP Dan Albas said in Question Period that Mr. Therrien was simply "the best candidate."
Interim commissioner Chantal Bernier's term runs out next week. She had held off commenting on Bill C-13, as well as two others with major privacy implications, C-31 and S-4. C-13 and C-31 appear set to pass before summer.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the University of Ottawa's Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic all asked to testify on C-13. All have either not heard back or were told there's no room.
Within government, Mr. Therrien built his brand by crafting the privacy language associated with the Conservative government's landmark perimeter-security agreement with the United States. The controversial border initiative has facilitated a climate of increased information-sharing by U.S. and Canadian officials, even though its implementation is raising legal and privacy issues.
"There are enormous risks associated with that," said Ann Cavoukian, the information and privacy commissioner of Ontario. Her office has lately highlighted the case of several Ontarians who were turned away at the U.S. border by guards with access to their mental-health records.
Ms. Cavoukian said she did not know Mr. Therrien's work – nor do any of her colleagues.