Oversight and Review Mechanisms: which one to choose?

Ralph_goodale_McGuinty.jpg-largeBy Monia Mazigh – On February 19, 2015, four former Canadian Prime Ministers wrote an op-ed in the Globe and Mail entitled “A Close Eye on Security Makes Canadians Safer”. They were urging Canada to implement an accountability regime that would deal with the government national security activities. This is an excerpt of what they said:

“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.”

Of course, at the time, the call from the four Prime Ministers was ignored. Last week, almost a year later, we were happily surprised to hear through media reports that Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has already started working on implementing the first all-party parliamentary national security committee. We also learned that David McGuinty, a long-time MP for Ottawa South, will be taking a leadership role in this committee.

When it comes to national security agencies and their activities, Canada lacks a robust and integrated oversight and review mechanism.

In everyday vocabulary, there is no distinction between “oversight” and “review” mechanism. In reality, there is a clear distinction between the two and we would like to see both implemented in Canada.

Justice Dennis O’Connor stated in his recommendations reports the following:

“To summarize, a review body assesses the activities of an organization against standards such as lawfulness and propriety, and delivers reports, which often contain recommendations to those in government who are politically responsible for the organization. In contrast, an oversight body performs the same functions but plays a more direct role in the management of the organization.”

Justice O’Connor believes that the review mechanism will have greater independence from the activities being reviewed and thus will have a better and greater impact on accountability. He doesn’t believe that oversight can keep the same distance with the examined organizations and thus it is a potential weakness.

Canada is the only country amongst the Five Eyes without any sort of oversight process regarding its national security agencies. However, Canada has two external review bodies:

  • The Security Intelligence review Committee (SIRC) established in 1984 to review CSIS activities;
  • The Communication Security Establishment (CSE) Commissioner established in 1996 to review CSE activities.

Even though these two review bodies accomplish important work, their respective duties remain conducted in silo, with little resources and huge challenges to address. In a world where the national security operations are more and more integrated, international and complex, the review mechanism landscape remains weak, scattered and ill-adapted to this new reality.

Today, there are 17 Canadian agencies involved in national security information sharing, and only three have some sort of a review mechanism: CSIS, the CSE and somewhat the RCMP. What about departments and agencies such as Public Safety, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre (FINTRAC), Foreign Affairs, etc? They have none.

In his recommendations from the Arar Inquiry, Justice Dennis O’Connor established a list of recommendations for the creation of an integrated accountability regime. He favoured the review mechanism with a “super SIRC” model that would examine all the activities of all the agencies involved in national security. Unfortunately, those recommendations were never implemented.

In the last decade, four main legislative attempts tried to establish an oversight committee in the Canadian parliament but they all failed.

In 2005, Bill C-81 was introduced by the Liberal government as an Act to establish a National Security Committee of Parliamentarians. It is the first attempt after the “Maher Arar case” to create an oversight body. This legislation died when the Parliament was dissolved on October 29, 2005 and general elections were called.

In 2013, private member’s bill C-551 was introduced by Liberal MP Wayne Easter. The proposed legislation was to establish a parliamentary committee to oversee all national security activities. The bill stopped at the first reading in the House. Private member bills rarely become laws especially under majority governments, which was the case at the time.

In 2014, private member’s bill C-622 was introduced by Liberal MP Joyce Murray with the intent to impose greater judicial and parliamentary scrutiny on the CSE as well as creating a Parliamentary Committee on intelligence and security matters. The bill was voted down at the second reading.

And finally, in 2014 again, Bill S-220 was introduced by the Conservative Senator Hugh Segal and supported by his liberal colleagues Roméo Dallaire and Grant Mitchell. The intent of the bill was to create an all-party committee of parliamentarians on national security and intelligence oversight. The bill stopped at the second reading in the Senate.

The recent news that Canada is considering to implement an oversight parliamentary committee based on the UK model is promising but it is not enough.

Accountability is crucial for many reasons. It prevents abuses from occurring, it allows the agencies to learn from their past errors, it makes the agencies more efficient and transparent but, most of all, it gives assurances to the public about its institutions. So let’s not forget the importance and the relevancy of the review mechanisms as recommended by Justice O’Connor.