Skip to main content

Politics Ottawa mulls ‘super’ oversight body for security agencies

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale arrives to appear as a witness at a National Security and Defence Senate committee in Ottawa on Monday, May 30, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ottawa is considering setting up a "super" Security Intelligence Review Committee that would provide oversight to a number of federal security departments and agencies, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says.

He made the revelation Monday during testimony to a Senate committee studying oversight of the Canada Border Services Agency, suggesting that the creation of a "superSIRC" is one of several options to solve a problem at the border agency, which has no process in place to deal with complaints about officer conduct.

SIRC is the independent, external review body that reports to Parliament on the operations of Canadian Security Intelligence Service, ensuring that the spy agency uses its extraordinary powers to intrude on individuals' privacy legally and appropriately.

Story continues below advertisement

Broadening its reach to include other departments and agencies – making a superSIRC – was first raised a decade ago by Justice Dennis O'Connor during the federal commission of inquiry into the Maher Arar affair.

The Canadian engineer was jailed and interrogated in his native Syria for nearly a year after being flown against his will to the Middle East on a U.S. intelligence agency jet. Canadian security agencies had wrongly red-flagged him as a potential terrorist in intelligence exchanges with the United States.

Upon learning that the agencies had been forging investigative partnerships that their watchdogs could not replicate, Justice O'Connor proposed a solution observers dubbed "superSIRC."

The proposal envisioned transforming the existing CSIS watchdog – SIRC – into a body that could keep tabs on several agencies at once. Security agencies can freely swap information and intelligence, but their respective review bodies remain legally prevented from telling each other what they're learning.

The government will launch consultations on Canada's national security framework this summer, which Mr. Goodale said will inform its position on CBSA oversight.

At the committee hearing, Mr. Goodale presented other options for the CBSA, as well. He proposed that the RCMP's Civilian Review and Complaints Commission could be expanded to include oversight of the CBSA or the creation of a similar standalone body strictly for the agency.

"That is a gap that definitely needs to be addressed," Mr. Goodale said. "Given the powers and the authorities vested in this organization, ensuring an effective system of review and scrutiny is absolutely essential."

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Goodale appeared before the committee Monday to offer his view on Liberal Senator Wilfred Moore's Bill S-205, which proposes to appoint an inspector-general of the CBSA to handle complaints against the agency. While Mr. Goodale supports the "spirit" of the bill, he said he cannot back the legislation in its current form because the national security review is not finished. He also cited "technical defects" with the bill itself.

For instance, Mr. Goodale said he is concerned about a provision that would give an inspector-general access to cabinet confidences – access that SIRC does not even have. He also raised questions about how the inspector-general would interact with existing review processes and how that could lead to the duplication of review activities.

There were questions at the committee about what would happen with regards to CBSA oversight if the bill does not pass. Mr. Moore tabled the same bill in the last parliamentary session calling for the creation of an inspector-general position at the CBSA, but it failed to pass before the election. Mr. Goodale said the government plans to table legislation on the matter as soon as possible after its national security review.

"I hope to wrap up that consultation before the end of this year. So my goal [for tabling legislation] would be in the early part of 2017."

The federal cabinet is expected to review the proposed parliamentary oversight committee very soon so that Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc can table legislation to establish that committee before Parliament breaks for the summer. The committee would include MPs and senators from all parties and monitor the work of 19 agencies with national security responsibilities.

Richard Fadden, former CSIS director and national security adviser to the prime minister, said Sunday that the parliamentary committee will need access to classified information if it is expected to be effective.

Story continues below advertisement

"The logical thing to do would be to establish this committee of parliamentarians, give them some staff, access to classified information, and then work through whether SIRC or the CSEC [Communications Security Establishment Canada] commissioner or the person who reviews military intelligence are integrated properly, or not," Mr. Fadden told CTV's Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife.

"Broadly speaking, I think there is something to be said for somebody somewhere having an overview."

With a report from Colin Freeze

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter