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Tories to scale back scope of anti-terror bill to allay concerns it goes too far

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 26, 2015.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

The federal government is rolling back the scope of its controversial anti-terror legislation to address fears it grants too much power to security and intelligence agencies.

As part of a series of amendments to Bill C-51, it's narrowing the definition of "activity that undermines the security of Canada" to make it more certain that people practising civil disobedience are not swept up in new measures to guard against threats to this country.

Critics say this particular change is important, but they say the amendments overall are fairly minimal and don't address core problems with the legislation, including how it would enable Canada's spy agency to obtain the power from judges to breach the Charter rights of suspects.

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The Harper government hasn't officially released the amendments, but summaries of what it has planned were circulated among media outlets Friday.

The bill as written now says threats to national security do "not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression." But environmentalists, aboriginals and civil-rights advocates were concerned the word "lawful" implied that some forms of dissent might be a threat. Critics had raised the example of pipeline blockades or a street protest where demonstrators had not obtained a permit.

The government is therefore removing the word "lawful" from the wording to broaden the exemption.

"As we have said for weeks we are open to amendments that make sense and that improve the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015," said Jean-Christophe de Le Rue, director of communications for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney.

In a second amendment, the Conservatives are removing what appeared to be an unlimited licence for government departments and agencies to share personal information about Canadians and commercially confidential details of businesses.

As C-51 reads now, it gives federal officials the right to "using that information, or further disclosing it to any person, for any purpose." Critics feared this could including passing information to foreign governments, for instance.

University of Ottawa legal expert Errol Mendes said he was "flabbergasted that you would have such a provision in any bill" in the first place. He said the removal of this was necessary but it is hardly a victory. "That was outrageous anyway so getting rid of it was not much of a giveaway."

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In a third amendment, the Tories are adding wording to C-51 to explicitly guarantee that Canada's spy agency is not being given the power to arrest people.

The legislation gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service the power to intervene and disrupt threats to national security, a major change in its mandate. To date, CSIS has been limited to merely collecting intelligence and handing off matters to the RCMP.

Craig Forcese, an associate law professor at the University of Ottawa, says what he's seen of the proposed wording for the CSIS amendment only further confuses the matter.

He said the bill doesn't address fundamental concerns such as measures that will allow a judge to grant CSIS the right to break the law and interfere with suspects' basis rights.

"There's no backing down on the idea that federal court judges will authorize unconstitutional activity by the service," Prof. Forcese said, referring to the spy agency.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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