The Conservative government plans to push ahead with a pair of controversial bills that will give police and other law-enforcement officials new powers to request and monitor the private data of Canadians, despite objections from privacy watchdogs.
Bills C-13 and C-31 are among those Government House Leader Peter Van Loan has pledged to make "progress" on before summer as MPs return Monday from a one-week break. The bills propose new powers for police and other "public officials" – including, critics say, many of the powers first proposed by former cabinet minister Vic Toews in his now-defunct surveillance bill, C-30, which became a lightning rod.
The new bills come amid a renewed debate over privacy in Canada, ranging from questions about oversight at the national spy agency, Ottawa's own efforts to monitor Canadians' social-media accounts and recent revelations that telecommunication companies are regularly being asked by government agencies to hand over private data.
Nonetheless, the new bills further expand snooping powers. In particular, C-13 was tabled as a cyberbullying law but also includes clauses beefing up the power of various government officials to monitor cellphones and other electronic data and track people, though in most cases a warrant is required. However, the bill also allows law-enforcement officials to seek private information from, for instance, telephone companies – who critics say could, under the bill, voluntarily hand over certain subscriber information to police, border guards or other officials with full legal impunity.
The government has argued that that part of the bill is only firming up what is already allowed – and this year Chantal Bernier, Canada's Interim Privacy Commissioner, revealed a document showing telecoms already receive such requests from government agencies, including 1.2-million of them in 2011.
In the case of C-13, however, Ms. Bernier has said there are "troubling aspects" including "a lack of accountability and reporting mechanisms," but hasn't yet spoken to Parliament about the bill.
The privacy commissioners, meanwhile, of Ontario and British Columbia have called for Bill C-13 to be split apart, separating the widely supported cyberbullying provisions from the controversial expansion of snooping powers, though government views it as the same subject and has bristled at the suggestion the bills are omnibus legislation.
"This is a wolf in sheep's clothing," Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian said . "... What we have to get away from is this trust-me model – 'just trust us, we're the government, we're doing the right thing, we're in it to protect you.' It's just unacceptable."
B.C. commissioner Elizabeth Denham echoed that, saying in a written statement she is "deeply concerned" about C-13's privacy implications. "Legislative remedies to address cyberbullying should not be bundled with broad changes to law enforcement powers," she said. "... It is up to government and law enforcement agencies to make the case to Canadians as to why increased police powers are necessary."
Bill C-31, meanwhile, is a budget implementation bill that allows the Canada Revenue Agency to hand over a person's tax information to police, without a warrant or charge having been laid, "if the official has reasonable grounds to believe that the information will afford evidence" of a crime.
The NDP are set to file a motion Monday to split Bill C-13 – the fate favoured by Ms. Cavoukian, Ms. Denham and Carol Todd, the mother of bullied teen Amanda Todd whose death fuelled calls for stronger cyberbullying laws. Ms. Todd this month asked MPs to split the bill.
"Cyberbullying is way too dangerous to play politics with," NDP Justice Critic Françoise Boivin said, adding the bill is vulnerable to a court challenge with the other provisions jammed in.
Liberal Critic Wayne Easter agreed the bill should be split. "This is something these guys always do – they have some good points in a bill and they tag on a bunch of other issues," he said of the Conservatives.
Both bills are currently before House of Commons committees. The government has extended Parliament's sitting hours for the next month, beginning Monday, to "pass legislation benefiting Canadians." Government cited C-13 and C-31 among its priority bills in the announcement but stopped short of guaranteeing each would pass. A request for comment sent to Justice Minister Peter MacKay's office Friday was not returned.