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Politics Blair recruitment shows Trudeau's passion for civil liberties has limits

Not two months ago, Justin Trudeau presented himself as a passionate defender of civil liberties.

"I believe that one of the highest aims of Canadian political leadership is to protect and expand freedom for Canadians," the Liberal Leader told a Toronto audience. Stephen Harper's Conservatives, at the time under fire for their treatment of niqab-wearing women, were guilty of encouraging Canadians "to be fearful of one another." And "efforts of one group to restrict the liberty of another are so very dangerous to this country, especially when agencies of the state are used to do it."

Making the case for protection of individual and minority rights in the face of fears about unfamiliar cultures and our collective safety, it was probably the most compelling speech by Mr. Trudeau since he took his party's helm.

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But it has become a bit more difficult to take those sentiments at face value, now that Mr. Trudeau has recruited Bill Blair – whose just-ended tenure as Toronto's police chief was to a large extent defined by civil-liberties controversies – as a star candidate.

As former-Toronto-chiefs-turned-federal-politicians go, Mr. Blair is relatively progressive. He made considerable effort to improve police relations with minority communities, consistently expressed complex and nuanced views about crime and its causes, and didn't try to convince the city its streets weren't safe so he could boost his own profile or budget. In other words, he is not Julian Fantino. (Whether it's healthy for Toronto's last two chiefs to have both used that position to pave the way for political careers is a different matter.)

For those reasons, senior Liberals argue that far from weakening their small-l liberal claims, Mr. Blair's candidacy bolsters them. By this account it will now be easier for Mr. Trudeau to push back against the Conservatives' law-and-order agenda and tough-on-terror rhetoric, and advocate for policies such as marijuana legalization; with one of the country's most prominent cops in his corner, it will be harder for Tories to brand him as soft. Mr. Blair already seems to be embracing that role, going so far as to say Mr. Trudeau's liberty speech helped draw him in.

The words of both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Blair, though, are difficult to square with two sets of actions under the former chief's watch.

The first was the handling of the G20 summit in 2010, when a wave of vandalism prompted police to arbitrarily suspend normal rights. More than 1,100 people were arrested (most of them never charged), random passersby were "kettled" for hours on end and there were widespread allegations of excessive force. While Mr. Blair later took responsibility for mistakes, he was strongly defensive of his force's actions at the time.

The second, probably more germane to issues Mr. Trudeau flagged, was "carding." Stopping and questioning people not suspected of a crime, pervasive under his watch, has been sharply criticized as a form of racial profiling that targets and alienates young black men in particular. Mr. Blair suspended and then modified the practice in his final months on the job, but only after pushing back hard against police-board attempts to rein it in.

For anyone inclined to cast a ballot on the basis of which party best defends civil liberties, either of those issues could be deal breakers – if not because they're on Mr. Blair's record, then because Mr. Trudeau has expressed little concern about them. He says he won't "second-guess" his new recruit on the G20 and appears to have even less to say about carding.

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What the Liberals seem to be counting on is not many voters being all that zealous on this subject, at least not when it has no direct bearing on them. Outside downtown Toronto, there was a common view that people there during the G20 were looking for trouble. And issues affecting the city's young black males, not a powerful political constituency, are out of sight and out of mind for most everyone else.

The Liberals might not be alone in those calculations. Considering that Mr. Blair plans to run against one of their incumbent MPs, and that they previously poked holes in Mr. Trudeau's liberty pitch by highlighting his support for the Conservatives' rights-encroaching anti-terrorism legislation, Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats could be talking a lot about the former chief's record. Instead, they seem to be avoiding the subject.

The values expressed in Mr. Trudeau's speech, of course, involve standing up for rights especially when there is limited political upside to doing so. But with all available public-opinion research showing safety trumping civil liberties among voters' concerns, nobody wants to get too carried away.

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