Who will be watching the watchers, asks MP

Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen on the government's new terror bill

In Canada and around the world, terrorism is a threat to peace and security. Over the past decade, thousands of people have been killed in terror attacks.

As Canadians, we take great pride in living in one of the safest countries in the world – and in the freedoms that form the bedrock of our society.

Whether the terrible assault on Charlie Hebdo in Paris or the attack on Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, recent events in Canada and on the world stage have put concerns about terrorism back into the public debate in a way we haven’t seen since the days following the September 11 attacks in the United States.

For its part, the federal government has tabled Bill C-51, an omnibus bill that will change the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) from a civilian body into an arm of law enforcement, and give Canada’s national security agencies sweeping new powers to counter “would-be jihadists” – including the power to override privacy laws and take pre-emptive actions against suspected criminals.

The new bill is being offered as an effort to bring Canada’s laws up to speed with powers already existing in countries like the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand. And some of these new powers speak to the realities that law enforcement agencies face in today’s digital age.

While no one would object to the goals of the legislation – keeping Canadians safe – there are concerns about the bill, and the extent of the Conservative government’s commitment to ensuring that this new law doesn’t lead to abuse.

For example, it was with some alarm I learned that the government’s own lawyers remain unsure whether the bill respects our Charter of Rights and Freedoms – the most sacred guide that we as parliamentarians have for writing laws.

Civil liberties organizations are worried that the bill will threaten our freedom of speech. Others have expressed concerns that the new powers for arrest, detention and surveillance could be abused or turned against groups which have nothing to do with terrorism at all.

Government agencies have already been found spying on environmental groups and First Nations in British Columbia who are critical of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. This legislation includes no safeguards against that kind of misuse.

I remain concerned that the bill will make it easier for government agencies to spy on Canadians and share personal information that was once protected. Indeed, Canadians deserve commitments that they won’t have their emails and social media spied on by the government.

But what promises do we have? As it stands currently, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) oversees CSIS and is meant to be an independent body, but has been stuffed with patronage appointments by the Harper government.

One Harper appointee, Arthur Porter, is now sitting in a Panamanian jail cell awaiting extradition on fraud charges in Quebec.

Another is former Conservative MP Chuck Strahl, who resigned from SIRC last year amidst a conflict-of-interest controversy as he is also a lobbyist for Enbridge.

Protecting public safety does not have to endanger civil liberties. But one of the keys to ensuring this balance is through real and independent public oversight. That’s also why, since 2013, the NDP has been advocating for an all-party committee – not just a five-person inner circle of the prime minister’s friends – to oversee the work of our security intelligence agencies.

The United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand – our declared models for Bill C-51 – all have legislative oversight in the form of all-party committees, and they play a crucial role for ensuring accountability and preventing abuse in their national security agencies.

In light of proposed enhanced powers to protect our safety, it’s essential now more than ever that we have enhanced oversight to protect our rights and freedoms as well.

Nathan Cullen is the New Democratic Party Member of Parliament for Skeena – Bulkley Valley and his party’s finance critic in the House of Commons.