A group of Liberal and NDP MPs is calling for a series of restrictions on the powers of Canada's spy agency and increased oversight of the country's national security agencies.
The standing committee on public safety and national security issued a long-awaited report on Canada's anti-terrorism regime on Tuesday. The document was backed by the Liberal majority on the committee as well as the NDP, which provided additional recommendations to the government.
Overall, the report called for greater respect of Charter rights in Canada's anti-terrorism framework, which could have an influence on the government's upcoming revamping of national security legislation. In the last election, the Liberals promised to water down the anti-terrorism legislation known as Bill C-51, which was passed by the previous, Conservative government.
In particular, the committee called for a "national security review office" that would provide oversight of agencies that are not currently under the authority of a watchdog and would act as a co-ordinating committee for existing watchdogs. The recommendation echoes calls for a "super-SIRC" – a beefed-up version of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which currently oversees the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
The Conservative MPs rejected the report, saying it does not go far enough to protect Canadians from the threats of terrorism.
"There is no more pressing concern for any government than the protection of the physical safety of its citizens," the Conservative Party's dissenting report said. "Yet, rather than work from this premise, the Liberal government – and by extension the Liberal majority on this Committee – have taken an ill-advised path of attempting to water down our national security tools."
The majority report contained 41 recommendations to revamp various pieces of national security legislation and the oversight mechanisms for the agencies that are active in this field. As part of its study, the committee heard from 138 witnesses at hearings in Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.
One recommendation that set the tone for the report called for the removal of CSIS's "ability to violate the Charter" when it engages in activities to reduce threats to the security of Canada. The committee added that CSIS should only use its disruptive powers after it has exhausted "all other non-disruptive means of reducing threats."
The report also called for restrictions on preventive detention in national security cases and urged the government to ensure that this tool is only used as a last resort.
The committee also said that counter-radicalization programs should be expanded to "stop groups that promote radicalization from gaining a foothold to spread their message of violence, or the precursors to violence."
The report said anti-terrorism legislation should not restrict freedom of speech, especially for journalists, protesters, NGOs, and environmental and Indigenous activists.
The committee focused many of its recommendations on the watchdogs of Canada's various national security agencies, calling for more funding to deal with the increase in anti-terrorism activities.
The committee added there should no changes at this time to Canada's lawful access regime, which is sought by law-enforcement agencies but rejected by privacy advocates who worry about growing police access to the electronic records of Canadians.
The Conservative Party countered that the legislation passed by the previous government should simply be maintained.
"The Anti-terrorism Act, 2015, more commonly known as Bill C-51, was an appropriate response to the terrorist threat environment. The tools it created have been used responsibly by national security officials," the Conservatives said.
The NDP, however, said the government should repeal the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act and the Secure Air Travel Act, among other proposed legislative changes.
"For New Democrats, a comprehensive national security framework has always been about protecting our rights, our freedoms and our safety. In the last number of years, we are of the opinion that safety has been the only one of those pillars that has been protected. With technology and threats evolving rapidly, it is critical the federal government protect Canadians' privacy and, of course, their fundamental rights and freedoms," the NDP said.