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The four of us most certainly know the enormity of the responsibility of keeping Canada safe, something always front of mind for a prime minister. We have come together with 18 other Canadians who have served as Supreme Court of Canada justices, ministers of justice and of public safety, solicitors-general, members of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee and commissioners responsible for overseeing the RCMP and upholding privacy laws.

Among us, we have served in our various public office roles from 1968 to 2014. Over that time we were faced with, and responded to, a range of pressing security concerns. We all agree that protecting public safety is one of government's most important functions and that Canada's national security agencies play a vital role in meeting that responsibility.

Yet we all also share the view that the lack of a robust and integrated accountability regime for Canada's national security agencies makes it difficult to meaningfully assess the efficacy and legality of Canada's national security activities. This poses serious problems for public safety and for human rights.

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A detailed blueprint for the creation of an integrated review system was set out almost a decade ago by Justice Dennis O'Connor in his recommendations from the Maher Arar inquiry, which looked into the role that Canada's national security agencies played in the rendition and torture of a Canadian citizen. Justice O'Connor's recommendations, however, have not been implemented; nor have repeated calls from review bodies for expanded authority to conduct cross-agency reviews.

Meanwhile, efforts to enhance parliamentary oversight of national security agencies have also been unsuccessful. For example, in October 2004, a report calling for parliamentary oversight over national security activities was presented to the minister of public safety; this report contained an oversight structure that was agreed upon by representatives of all parties in both the House of Commons and the Senate. Legislation was introduced at the time, but not adopted before the next election.

Canada needs independent oversight and effective review mechanisms more than ever, as national security agencies continue to become increasingly integrated, international information sharing remains commonplace and as the powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies continue to expand with new legislation.

Protecting human rights and protecting public safety are complementary objectives, but experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security. Given the secrecy around national security activities, abuses can go undetected and without remedy. This results not only in devastating personal consequences for the individuals, but a profoundly negative impact on Canada's reputation as a rights-respecting nation. A strong and robust accountability regime mitigates the risk of abuse, stops abuse when it is detected, and provides a mechanism for remedying abuses that have taken place. In the years since the Arar inquiry, international human rights experts – including the UN Committee against Torture – have called on Canada to improve oversight of its national security agencies.

Canada's national security policies and practices must be effective in order to protect public safety. Independent oversight and effective review mechanisms help ensure that resources devoted to national security activities are being utilized effectively and efficiently. The confidential nature of national security activities means that it is more difficult to rely on the usual public checks on government performance, such as scrutiny from Parliament, civil society, media and the general public. Security-cleared review bodies play crucial roles in catching and correcting operational and structural problems before they become full-blown national security failures, leading to better security for Canadians.

National security agencies, like all government institutions, must be accountable to the public. Accountability engenders public confidence and trust in activities undertaken by the government, particularly where those activities might be cloaked in secrecy. Independent checks and balances ensure that national security activities are protecting the public, and not just the government in power. Oversight and review mechanisms are necessary to make sure that powers are being exercised lawfully, and that government officials are not called upon to undertake activities that might expose them or Canada to legal liability either at home or abroad.

The Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, Prime Minister of Canada (1993-2003), Minister of Justice (1980-82);

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The Right Honourable Joe Clark, Prime Minister of Canada (1979-80), Minister of Justice (1988-89);

The Right Honourable Paul Martin, Prime Minister of Canada (2003-06);

The Right Honourable John Turner, Prime Minister of Canada (1984), Minister of Justice (1968-72);

The Honourable Louise Arbour, Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada (1999-2004);

The Honourable Michel Bastarache, Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada (1997-2008);

The Honourable Ian Binnie, Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada (1998-2011);

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The Honourable Claire L'Heureux Dubé, Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada (1987-2002);

The Honourable John Major, Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada (1992-2005);

The Honourable Irwin Cotler, Minister of Justice (2003-06);

The Honourable Marc Lalonde, Minister of Justice (1978-79);

The Honourable Anne McLellan, Minister of Justice (1997-2002), Minister of Public Safety (2003-06);

The Honourable Warren Allmand, Solicitor General of Canada (1972-76);

The Honourable Jean-Jacques Blais, Solicitor General of Canada (1978-79);

The Honourable Wayne Easter, Solicitor General of Canada (2002-03);

The Honourable Lawrence MacAulay, Solicitor General of Canada (1998-2002);

The Honourable Frances Lankin, Member, Security Intelligence Review Committee (2009-14);

The Honourable Bob Rae, Member, Security Intelligence Review Committee (1998-2003);

The Honourable Roy Romanow, Member, Security Intelligence Review Committee (2003-08);

Chantal Bernier, Acting Privacy Commissioner of Canada (2013-2014);

Shirley Heafey, Chairperson, Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP (1997-2005);

Jennifer Stoddart, Privacy Commissioner of Canada (2003-2013);

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