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Via Rail train plot brings counterterrorism, civil liberties to top of House’s agenda

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews rises in the House of Commons.

ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

News of a terror plot to attack a Via Rail train, just one week after the Boston Marathon bombings, has pushed public security to the front burner just as the Harper government seeks Parliament's authority to curb civil liberties in the name of keeping Canadians safe.

The House of Commons was several hours into a debate Monday over a government-sponsored counterterrorism bill that would give authorities extra powers of arrest and detention when the RMCP announced they had foiled an al-Qaeda-backed plan to attack a Toronto-area passenger train.

At issue is S-7, the Combating Terrorism Act, which would authorize police to pre-emptively detain Canadians and hold them for up to three days without charging them.

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Late last week the Harper government, citing the Boston bombings as a reason, cleared the legislative schedule for Monday and Tuesday to conduct third readings of S-7, a bill that has been moving relatively slowly through Parliament.

The bill would also allow authorities to imprison a Canadian for up to 12 months if the person refuses to testify in front of a judge at an investigative hearing.

The legislation would also make it a federal crime to leave or try to leave Canada for the purpose of committing terrorism or attending a terrorist training camp.

Some of the measures in S-7 have previously been law in Canada but expired because they were so-called sunset provisions introduced in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The sudden renewed focus on the terrorist threat facing North America shifts the political conversation both in Parliament and around dinner tables to territory where the tough-on-crime Harper Conservatives feel their credentials are strong. Recent months have been trying for the Tories as they drifted from one controversy to another – from aboriginal anger to foreign workers – with few high-profile items left on its agenda.

Monday's arrests "demonstrate that terrorism continues to be a real threat to Canada," Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said a short while after Mounties began explaining the arrests. "Preventing, countering, and prosecuting terrorism is a priority for our government."

Critics, however, say the thwarted train attack demonstrates that authorities can disrupt terrorist schemes without requiring additional powers that would further encroach on civil rights.

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The Conservatives invoked Boston on Monday as they sought to justify the measures.

"We must ensure – it's so important – that Canada has the necessary laws and tools to prevent such a heinous attack," Candice Bergen, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, said in the Commons. "We have to ensure that the evildoers are met with the justice that they deserve otherwise we as parliamentarians have failed our most basic duty: that is to protect Canadians."

The legislation would also make it a federal crime to leave or try to leave Canada for the purpose of committing terrorism or attending a terrorist training camp.

The bill is supported by Justin Trudeau's Liberals but opposed by Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats, who say its measures are unnecessary and ineffective intrusions, citing the detention provisions.

"The key question that needs to be asked is this: is S-7 necessary or are our current laws sufficient? Today's arrests show that our police force can fight terrorism with existing tools," NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said.

York South-Weston NDP MP Mike Sullivan said former Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker, a champion of civil rights, "would be rolling over in his grave" if he knew of this bill.

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Paul Calarco, a member of the Canadian Bar Association's national criminal justice section, said his organization believes the legislation "does not add in any substantive way to the tools that already exist in the Criminal Code."

The use of investigative hearings where people would be forced to answer questions on threat of imprisonment is "totally contrary to our civil liberties traditions." Mr. Calarco said. It's not clear this was effective when it was last on the books, he said.

The Conservatives said, however that there would be careful protections against indiscriminate use of the detention provisions.

Mr. Calarco said the proposal to make it an offence to leave Canada to commit terrorism or attend a terrorist camp unnecessarily duplicates existing prohibitions under the law.

"If you're leaving the country to go to a terrorist camp … you're going there to learn how to commit a crime, to perform the activities of a terrorist organization, so you're already guilty of either conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, aiding and abetting a terrorist organization, possession of weaponry," to name a few, Mr. Calarco said.

"Repetitive legislation is not necessarily helpful to what we're dealing with."

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