OTTAWA (AFP) – Canada s government Tuesday fended off sharp criticism of a new anti-terror law that would grant Canada s spy agency sweeping powers in the aftermath of two deadly attacks last October, and pressed for quick passage.
“Canada is not immune from terrorism,” Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney told a parliamentary committee reviewing the bill after second reading in the House.
“Currently, CSIS (Canada s spy agency) can detect security threats but is unable to take action, unlike (what) most of (our) allies are doing,” he said.
The government has hammered away at this message, pointing to a lone gunman s October 22 killing of a ceremonial guard and storming of parliament, and the hit-and-run murder of another soldier in rural Quebec the same week.
Blaney said it is crucial that authorities be given a mandate and the tools to track suspected extremists “at home and abroad” who would do harm to Canadians.
With this in mind, the government is seeking to pass the “Anti-terrorism Act, 2015” before parliament breaks in June, giving the Canadian Security Intelligence Agency (CSIS) increased powers to thwart terror plots.
CSIS s chief Michel Coloumbe was also scheduled to appeared before the committee over the coming eight days of hearings.
He warned senators on Monday that the Islamic State group — which has made video threats against Canada — was spreading from Syria to Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, making a case for expanding CSIS s reach overseas.
Until now, CSIS has handed off cases to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to investigate and make arrests.
Under its new mandate, the spy agency will actively seek to disrupt threats and start working outside of Canada for the first time.
As part of that new mission, it could interfere with financial transactions, prevent a suspect from boarding a plane, intercept weapons or conduct “online counter-messaging,” for example, by hacking a Twitter account used to recruit jihadists.
Three quarters of Canadians support the proposed anti-terror measures, according to the latest polls.
But Canada s privacy commissioner, Daniel Therrien, said the bill “goes too far.”
– Limitless powers –
He said it would give 17 government departments and agencies “almost limitless powers to monitor and profile ordinary Canadians,” and 14 of them are not subject to independent oversight.
“While the potential to know virtually everything about everyone may well identify some new threats, the loss of privacy is clearly excessive,” Therrien said in a recent open letter.
Therrien is among 48 witnesses scheduled to testify at the hearing, including Supreme Court justices and Maher Arar, an engineer who was arrested by US officials in 2002 on a tip-off from the RCMP who suspected him of terrorism. He was deported to Syria and tortured for one year, before being cleared by Canadian authorities.
The leader of the New Democratic Party, Thomas Mulcair, voted against the act at the first reading, saying it was lacking in oversight and a danger to Canadians constitutional rights.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper s Conservatives “are going too far in eroding our way of life with their new anti-terrorism law,” said the NDP.
Other critics include four former Canadian prime ministers, and former top judges including Louise Arbour who was also UN High Commmissioner for Human Rights.
Justin Trudeau, the leader of the third-ranked Liberals, has also criticized Harper over the bill, but will support it.
Monday evening, he accused the prime minister of fomenting an atmosphere of “fear” for political gain.
“It is always a short path to walk from being suspicious of our fellow citizens to taking actions to restrict their liberty,” he said in a speech.
Others such as Amnesty International, meanwhile, expressed concerns that the bill could be used against the government s political opponents, including environmental and aboriginal activists.
The bill “leaves open the possibility that the act and increased police and CSIS powers could be used against First Nations and environmentalists engaging in non-violent protests against pipelines or other environmentally destructive projects,” said the David Suzuki Foundation, an advocacy group.