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Canada’s national security agencies too secretive, experts tell Senate Open Caucus

Canada’s national security agencies too secretive, experts tell Senate Open Caucus

Canada’s national security agencies too secretive, experts tell Senate Open Caucus

Published on 2 June 2015 Publications by Senator Art Eggleton (retired)

‘In Canada, security is never part of federal elections, so this might be a good and unexpected outcome of our discussion around Bill C-51, however flawed the bill is and will prove to be,’ says University of Ottawa professor Wesley Wark.

The secrecy surrounding Canada’s security establishment stems from a lack of transparency and accountability in Canada’s national security organizations, and is undermining the trust Canadians have in the very organizations meant to protect them. This was one of the main takeaways from a public Open Caucus hosted by the Senate Liberals on national security and human rights this past Wednesday.

“I cannot believe at what this government, and it’s not just this government, the government before, want to keep secret,” stated Paul Cavalluzzo, lead counsel on the Maher Arar Inquiry from 2004 to 2006. “We often laugh at the Americans in terms of their national security, but they are far more open when it comes to the release of information than we are.” This was a sentiment shared by Professor Wesley Wark, who served two terms on the Prime Minister’ Advisory Council on National Security between 2005-2009. “Once upon a time we were widely touted by our friends and allies in Europe and elsewhere as kind of a leading innovator when it came to accountability in national security issues,” Wark said. “That is a long time ago now, and we have been vastly outpaced in terms of how we are dealing with this issue.”

One particular area where this secrecy is hurting the public trust is the growing perception that national security organizations are deliberately targeting certain ethnic, racial and religious communities in their operations. Marie-Claude Landry, chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commissions, stated that while these organizations have anti discriminatory policies in place, there is no data collected to verify that these policies are being followed. “Without monitoring to transparently demonstrate that their human rights policies are effective national security organizations are vulnerable to criticism and the potential loss of public trust,” she said.

Ziad Mia of the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association spoke of an underlying feeling in the Muslim community that they are the primary target of national security agencies, and pointed to the harm this can cause. In the Muslim community, “they feel under pressure and under the microscope. … This toxic rhetoric that is putting Muslims in this tension and casting them as ‘the other’ essentially plays into the worldview of extremists.” Mia believes that this is wrong-headed because cooperation with these communities is crucial during security operations, noting the arrests in the 2012 VIA Rail plotas an example. “That plot was thwarted because communities were involved … that’s your best way. Not only is that effective, it builds trust with the communities, and it costs a lot less money.”

With regard to Bill C-51, many of the meeting’s witnesses agreed that the legislation will only entrench this culture of secrecy, and will even serve to worsen it in some cases. One provision of the bill would give CSIS the right to go to a Federal Court to seek permission to violate an individual’s Charter rights in order to collect information. This would occur behind closed doors, without the individual’s knowledge or even a special advocate to speak on their behalf. “I have never in my professional life seen a provision like this. It’s unconstitutional on its face,” Cavalluzzo said. “Apart from it being unconstitutional … it’s a secret process.”  He went on to note that that 14 of the 17 agencies which will be receiving this information have no review mechanism. “What if they make a mistake? What is the citizen going to do?”

Wark noted that one positive outcome of the bill is that it is drawing public attention toward the debate on national security, which could become a main theme of the upcoming fall election, a rarity in Canadian elections. “My prediction is that this will become an important part of every party’s election platform. … Prime Minister Harper has already signaled that he intends it to be,” Wark said. “In Canada, security is never part of federal elections, so this might be a good and unexpected outcome of our discussion around Bill C-51, however flawed the bill is and will prove to be.”

The Senate Liberals have hosted a series of public discussions on a number of topics as a part of their “Open Caucus” initiative. Their next meeting will be held this coming Wednesday on Parliament Hill, and will cover the issue of pharmacare.