The head of a group representing Canadian Muslims accused a veteran Conservative MP of making slanderous comments during expert testimony on the government's proposed anti-terror legislation Thursday night.
During a question-and-answer session following National Council of Canadian Muslims executive director Ihsaan Gardee's presentation to the House public safety committee on Bill C-51, Diane Ablonczy used her allotted time to "put on the record" what she described as "a continuing series of allegations" that the NCCM has ties to groups that have expressed support for "Islamic terrorist groups," including Hamas.
"I think it is fair to give you an opportunity to address these troubling allegations," Ablonczy said.
"In order to work together, there needs to be a satisfaction that, you know, this can't be a half-hearted battle against terrorism. Where do you stand in light of these allegations?"
Gardee pushed back.
"First and foremost, I'll say on the record that NCCM has condemned violent terrorism and extremism in all of its forms, regardless of who perpetrates it for whatever reason," he told the committee.
"However, the premise of your question is false, and entirely based on innuendo and misinformation."
Gardee pointed to the group's history as an independent, non-profit, grassroots Canadian Muslim civil liberties organization with a "robust and public" track record.
"These are precisely the types of slanderous statements that have resulted in litigation that is ongoing," he said, including a defamation lawsuit launched last year against the Prime Minister's Office over "false statements" linking the group to Hamas made by now-former spokesman Jason MacDonald.
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"The NCCM is confident that the courts will provide the necessary clarity on these points to ensure they are never repeated again," he said. "The NCCM is not going to submit to a litmus test of loyalty used against Canadian Muslims and their institutions… which underlie such offensive questions."
"McCarthyesque-type questions protected by parliamentary privilege are unbecoming of this committee," he said, referring to a style of questioning used by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, imputing guilt with little or no evidence to back it up.
In response, Ablonczy mused that Gardee seemed to have been prepared for her question — as, she said, she thought he might be — before switching topics to hear his thoughts on effective anti-radicalization initiatives.
Later in the session, New Democrat MP Craig Scott prefaced his first round of questions by thanking Gardee "for keeping your composure and your dignity" during the earlier exchange.
"You are correct to have pointed out that parliamentary privilege was behind why those questions were put in the way they were put," Scott said.
During question period on Friday, deputy New Democratic leader Megan Leslie called on Ablonczy to apologize for her "disgraceful behaviour." That prompted parliamentary secretary for public safety Roxanne James to remind the House of why the government believes Bill C-51 is necessary.
No-fly list expansion worries airlines
MPs also heard from National Airlines Council of Canada executive director Marc-Andre O'Rourke, who went out of his way to stress that the airlines his organization represents are "committed partners" on security, but do have concerns over the proposal to expand the no-fly list without offering more support on the ground.
"Currently, only an individual who is believed to pose a threat to aviation security can be put on the list," he noted.
Under the new bill, that list will also include individuals for which there are grounds to believe may be travelling for the purpose of committing a terrorism offence.
"Airline agents are front and centre when delivering the news to a passenger that he or she will not be permitted to travel," O'Rourke reminded the committee.
"As you can imagine, this can be difficult and delicate, and has the potential to be a risky situation, considering that the individuals involved have been deemed too dangerous to fly."
With the list now likely to grow longer, with more no-fly decisions to be delivered, those directives should be delivered "whenever possible" by law enforcement or a government official, he recommended.
O'Rourke also pointed to a section of the bill that, as worded, appears to give the public safety minister the power to direct an air carrier to do "anything that, in the minister's opinion, is reasonable and necessary" to prevent someone on the no-fly list from travelling to carry out a terrorist offence.
"While our members are committed partners, what may be 'reasonable and necessary' from the minister's perspective may not always be feasible from an air carrier's perspective," O'Rourke explained.
"We just want to make sure whatever the minister has in mind is something we can do."
The committee also heard from law professors Kent Roach and Craig Forcese, who have been analyzing the implications of the proposed legislation since it was tabled last month, as well as Amnesty International Canada secretary general Alex Neve.
The hearings are expected to continue when MPs return from the upcoming week-long constituency break, with the bill due to be returned to the House by the end of the month.