The Trudeau government long ago promised to overhaul Bill C-51, the controversial Harper-era Anti-Terrorism Act. So far, though, it has done nothing, partly thanks to a convenient stalking horse: the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security.
The committee spent months examining the delicate balance between national security and the need to protect Canadians' rights, and now it has issued its report. With it, the government should finally get to work on this overdue file.
The committee makes 41 recommendations, some of which speak for themselves. For instance, one says that a section of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act should "be repealed in order to remove the ability to violate the Charter."
Well, yes. Bill C-51 amended the CSIS Act to allow agents to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to reduce ill-defined threats to security, as long as they got a warrant first. This should always have been a non-starter.
The committee also wants the CSIS Act to make it clear that "all disruption activities that violate Canadian law necessitate a warrant," and that the relevant cabinet minister has to approve the "disruption activities" before they take place.
That is an improvement over Bill C-51. But it is still problematic. CSIS Director Michel Coulombe told the committee that his agency has exercised these novel powers "about two dozen times" since Bill C-51 came into force. His imprecision is unsettling. Any state-sanctioned violation of Canadian law must be better documented than that.
Did these 24 or so times result in a safer Canada? Were they worth the terrible price? The committee recommends that the government recognize the urgency in creating a national security and intelligence committee, the members of which have the clearance to examine the activities of CSIS. It also wants the government to table an annual public report on the terrorist threat to Canada, complete with data and performance indicators.
The committee has pointed the way toward a security framework that has the muscle to combat terrorism, as well as the oversight mechanisms needed to ensure that Canadians' rights are protected. There is no more excuse for inaction.