The federal government is trying to reshape the public perception of Bill C-51, five weeks after the anti-terrorism legislation was tabled and subjected to intense scrutiny and debate across the country.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and Justice Minister Peter MacKay appeared in front of a parliamentary committee on Tuesday in a bid to ease concerns over the reach of the bill. At the same time, they attacked critics as "so-called experts" who are raising needless fears about Canada's law-enforcement authorities. Their appearance was the first of nine meetings of the Public Safety Committee, which will hear from up to 48 other witnesses this month.
For more on Bill C-51, read The Globe's in-depth explainer: Privacy, security and terrorism: Taking a closer look at Bill C-51
Information Sharing versus Disruption
One of the main criticisms of the legislation is the broad definition of activities that could trigger federal departments to transfer the personal information of Canadians to counterterrorism agencies.
Under “information sharing” provisions in Bill C-51, a wide variety of activities would allow Passport Canada or the Canada Revenue Agency, for example, to tip off the RCMP or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. In addition to terrorism, the bill refers to actions that interfere with the “economic or financial stability of Canada” and “with critical infrastructure.”
Critics argue Bill C-51 could turn environmentalists or native activists into potential targets. The government replied the bill makes a clear exception for “lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression.” Mr. MacKay went further by assuring Canadians that even illegal protests such as sit-ins would not fit the criteria.
“It does not include lawful or unlawful protest, dissent or stoppage of work, unless there is intention to cause death or serious bodily harm, endanger someone’s life or cause risk to the safety of the public,” Mr. MacKay said.
Mr. Blaney repeated several times that CSIS will not operate under the definition of terrorism laid out in the information-sharing provisions, but rather the narrower description in the CSIS Act.
“The threshold for CSIS to engage in disruption is met if there are reasonable grounds to believe that a particular activity constitutes a threat to the security of Canada, the same definition they have been using for the last 30 years,” he said.
Four former prime ministers and a number of retired judges have criticized the lack of new oversight mechanisms in the bill.
Mr. Blaney responded that in many cases, CSIS will need to obtain a warrant from a judge before using its new powers to “disrupt” the activities of a terrorist.
“The judge can refuse [the warrant], modify it or ask for a third party’s views,” he said.
Liberal MP Wayne Easter said the current body that oversees CSIS’s activities, called the Security Intelligence Review Committee, needs to be bolstered by parliamentary oversight from an all-party committee of MPs. “Judicial authorization is not oversight, it’s not adequate,” he said.
When Mr. MacKay said that oversight is best delivered by experts, Mr. Easter responded that SIRC has been traditionally filled with “former politicians.”
Promotion of terrorism
The government wants a new provision in the Criminal Code that would make it illegal to promote any terrorist activity, with Mr. Blaney arguing that there are necessary limits to free speech in a democracy.
“The Holocaust did not start in the gas chambers, it started with words,” Mr. Blaney said.
Mr. MacKay added that the government has stopped short of criminalizing the “glorification” of terrorism, as other countries have done.
“The standard that would be applied here is the promotion or the advocacy, the encouraging, the efforts to draw a person into committing acts of terrorism,” he said.
The big question is whether Bill C-51 will be amended by the committee. In his opening remarks, Mr. Blaney said the objections of “members of the opposition as well as so-called experts” are misguided. After the committee meeting, Mr. Blaney denied the Conservatives are seeking to make political gains based on the growing threat of terrorism.
“Where is the fear? The fear is on the side of those who are attacking this bill,” he said.
NDP MP Randall Garrison said he was disappointed by the government’s attack on critics before they have even testified at the committee.
“What the public will see when the witnesses come before [the committee] is there are indeed experts, and that Canadians have a lot to offer on the issues that are in this bill,” he said.