Editorial – Will the government listen to spies’ demands or to the population’s?

megaphone_by_sidvicious08By Monia Mazigh – In January 2015, the Canadian government introduced the controversial anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51. At that time, the Conservative government underestimated the strong opposition of the Canadian population to Bill C-51.

The government thought that both the Parliament Hill and the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu attacks created a climate of fear that would convince the population to staunchly support the national security policies at any price. Indeed, the support for stiffer anti-terrorism legislation in November 2014 was at 70%, and in February 2015, the support for Bill C-51 reached a peak of 80%. But after a public education campaign, the support rapidly started to drop and among citizens who heard of Bill C-51, only 38% approved it. Even with impressive public opposition and outcry, the Parliament adopted the bill in June 2015.

The Liberals supported the bill but promised that if elected they will amend the controversial parts. The NDP opposed the bill and promised to repeal it if elected. Today, we have a Liberal government and we still don’t know exactly what they will do with C-51. However, we know from some media reports that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) is not very eager to see these changes or amendments happening, especially since C-51 grants them huge disruption powers. And despite what the director of CSIS recently disclosed about these powers, the public knows little about them and how they are used.

In its submission about C-51, and referring to the disruption powers, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group wrote “that these extraordinary powers are unprecedented, dangerous, and have no place in a free and democratic society.” That doesn’t seem to be the opinion of Michel Coulombe, director of CSIS, who while testifying in front of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence mentioned that the disruption powers embedded in Bill C-51 were used nearly 24 times since last fall . As expected and feared by civil rights groups, CSIS didn’t ask for judicial approval before conducting these disruptive actions. They decided on their own that they aren’t violating any provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. CSIS hasn’t explain any of these actions.

How can we trust them? CSIS has a history of misleading its review mechanism, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), and the courts. Here are a few examples:

  • In the 2015 SIRC annual report, we learned that CSIS, on several occasions, obtained tax information from the Canada Revenue Agency on Canadian citizens without a warrant. SIRC discovered it and recommended to CSIS to correct the situation and follow the proper procedure. Nevertheless, nothing has been done, at least to our knowledge, to correct the situation.
  • In the 2014 annual report, SIRC found that it had been “seriously misled” by CSIS and that CSIS agents had violated their duty of candour during ex parte proceedings.
  • And if this is not enough to convince the sceptics, let’s also remember that, in 2013, Justice Mosley had found CSIS to be in breach of its duty of candour to the Court by not disclosing information that was relevant to obtaining a warrant for its spying activities.

But even if CSIS got approval from the courts to spy on people and “disrupt” their activities, it doesn’t make the disruption powers legitimate. The law says CSIS intelligence officers cannot harm, kill or sexually assault anyone, but use of the power is otherwise open-ended. A 2004 Globe and Mail article, reported that between 1993 and 2003, CSIS has succeeded in having its warrant applications approved 99.3 per cent of the time. If that was the case before Bill C-51, why should we expect things to be any different today?

Meanwhile, we are still in the dark regarding the government’s plan. It did not make any announcements relative to C-51 and the public consultations. We know that Minister Goodale listened to the demands of Mr. Coulombe and that the latter told him that CSIS “operates on tight strictures, not arbitrary whims”. But, as we have seen, they have extraordinary leeway in their actions, and have a history of abusing their powers and not listening to the authorities who are in place to ensure our rights are respected. Will Minister Goodale now listen to the Canadians about their concerns on C-51?