Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney vowed to 'set the record straight' as he kicked off a much-anticipated committee review of his government's proposed new anti-terror measures on Tuesday morning.
It was a pledge that opposition members, particularly New Democrat public safety critic Randall Garrison, were eager to put to the test.
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During his opening statement, Blaney highlighted the "key misconceptions" that he said had been put forward by members of the opposition and "so-called experts": the claim that "legitimate protest" could be treated as potential terrorist threats, which he called "completely false, and frankly ridiculous."
Blaney also took issue with concerns raised over new information-sharing powers, which, he assured the committee, will only be done to protect Canadians.
"Canadians would be unforgiving should we fail to fix this dysfunctional info-sharing system," he warned.
Under questioning from Garrison, however, Blaney tacitly acknowledged that at least one concern articulated by legal experts is, in fact, legitimate. He admitted that CSIS won't require judicial authority for all disruption efforts, but only those that could potentially breach the Charter or Canadian law.
Even so, Blaney insisted that such activities "follow a rigorous process."
Blaney also sparked brief consternation across the table when he made reference to the Holocaust while defending the need for new laws against the promotion of terror.
During a follow-up round of questions, Garrison chided the minister for the comment.
"There is no equivalence in anything we're talking about here to the Holocaust," he said, adding that "at best" the reference seemed to trivialize the tragedy.
But Blaney stuck to his guns.
"Violence starts with words, hatred starts with words," he reminded the committee.
"Let's call a cat a cat … hate propaganda has no place in Canada, and the time has come for the government to take our responsibility."
Asked about the comment by reporters after the meeting, Blaney denied that he had been suggesting that, without this bill, a Holocaust could occur in Canada.
"Absolutely not," he said.
"There is a provision specifically targeting the promotion of terrorism, in general. It is important in our country, where freedom and the protection of our rights is important, and that we don't tolerate hatred."
Garrison described the meeting as producing "more heat than light," and called on Blaney and other C-51 supporters to pull back on the rhetoric, as well as what he described as the "overuse of fear" by the government.
Garrison also reminded reporters that it was the Conservatives, including cabinet ministers, who had successfully passed through both the House and Senate a private member's bill that stripped the Canadian Human Rights Commission of the power to order the removal of online hate speech.
"[Blaney] must be getting whiplash," Garrison said.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who appeared alongside Blaney, used the bulk of his allotted time to detail measures that come under his ministerial jurisdiction. They included proposed changes to the peace bond provisions currently in the Criminal Code, dropping the threshold from a reasonable fear that someone "will" commit a terrorist a offence to "may" do so.
He also provided an overview of the proposal to create a "new, indictable offence" for the promotion of terrorism, which he stressed was not an anti-glorification law.
"This new offence would fill what we believe is a current gap in the law, and responds to a threat we believe exists," MacKay told the committee.
He also pointed to a proposed new process to remove such material from the internet — a new power that, he said, "some are alarmed" doesn't already exist.
"These proposals are reasonable, and a proportionate response to the threat," MacKay argued.
Constitutional concerns raised
While MacKay insisted that the bill is "consistent with the constitution," he was unwilling to provide the committee with a copy of the legal advice received by the government that he indicated had confirmed that view.
"I'm not able to do so, as there is solicitor-client privilege that exists," MacKay explained.
Garrison pointed out that such privilege can be waived by the client — which, in this case, would be the minister.
"We're not going do that," MacKay told him.
The two ministers spent two hours fielding queries from MPs on the controversial bill.
Also at the committee witness table today were RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson and CSIS director Michael Coulombe.
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Before witness testimony got underway, Garrison tried to get unanimous consent from his committee colleagues to sit for an extra hour in order to hear from Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, but that consent was denied.
Initially, the government had wanted to spend just three days hearing expert testimony, but it raised its offer in response to a New Democrat-backed filibuster.
The committee is now scheduled to hold nine witness hearings in all, including today's appearance by the ministers, and will wrap up clause-by-clause review by March 31, 2015.