The Conservatives are pushing to devote just three meetings to hearing expert testimony on the government's proposed anti-terrorism bill when it goes to the public safety committee for review, CBC News has learned.

Sources say that one of those days would be taken up by Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and departmental officials, leaving just two meetings to hear from outside experts.

The New Democrats, meanwhile, want no fewer than four former prime ministers to be invited to share their thoughts on the bill.

During a closed-door planning meeting Tuesday morning, NDP committee members were expected to put forward a witness wish list that includes former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, Paul Martin and John Turner and six retired Supreme Court justices. Those names were among two dozen prominent Canadians who signed a letter last week calling for more oversight provisions in C-51.

The New Democrats also want to hear from three former members of the secretive Security Intelligence Review Committee that oversees CSIS operations: Bob Rae, Roy Romanow and Frances Lankin.

Privacy, ex-CSIS watchdogs also on list

Other names include:

  • Former Supreme Court justices Louise Arbour, Michel Bastarache, Ian Binnie, Claire L'Heureux Dubé, John Major and Frank Iacobucci.
  • Former associate chief justice of Ontario Dennis O'Connor.
  • Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien and predecessors Jennifer Stoddart and Chantal Bernier.
  • Former RCMP public complaints commission chair Shirley Heafey.
  • Former CSIS inspector general Eva Plunkett.
  • Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, who now heads up the Broadbent Institute.

NDP sources say the full list will include as many as 50 witnesses, including legal, security and privacy experts.

The committee spent most of the morning sequestered behind closed doors, and wrapped up shortly before 1 p.m. ET.

NDP to filibuster?

Originally, Tuesday's meeting was slated to be in camera only briefly before opening up for a public hearing on employment and training programs for federal inmates and offenders.

Instead, those invited witnesses, who included Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers and a group lobbying to restore the prison farm program, were left to cool their heels in the hallway.

In the past, New Democrat committee members have successfully tied up House committees for hours — and in some cases, days — by talking through the allotted time in order to stymie the government's efforts to impose tight turn-around deadlines on complex legislation.

If the party decides to employ a similar strategy with the anti-terrorism bill, it could push back the government's timeline for passage, although likely not indefinitely, as the committee chair could move to call a vote if he feels that the speeches are repetitious or lacking relevance.

NDP criticism 'ridiculous': PM

During question period, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair challenged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to commit to a full review at committee — one in which, he said, "security experts and human rights experts [will be] not only heard, but listened to."

In response, Harper called Mulcair's criticism of the bill "ridiculous."

"I would urge the committee to study the bill as quickly as possible in order to ensure the adoption of these measures to ensure the security and safety of Canadians," he added.

Later in the session, NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison suggested that, rather than answer questions, the government "rammed C-51 through this House," and wondered if they were going to try to do the same thing at committee.

Blaney, the public safety minister, said he was "disappointed" in the New Democrats.

"I think we should care about terrorism, and do as elected members what we can to give the tools to our police officers and law enforcement and intelligence that they need, and show them respect" — something he said Mulcair "has not been able to do."

Later, Blaney accused the NDP of not even wanting to debate the bill within committee, and slammed Mulcair for "attacking the credibility" of CSIS officers.

"These people respect the law, and I call on him to present arguments, and not lies to defend his position."

'Let's do this right'

Speaking on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Liberal public safety critic Wayne Easter, whose party supports the bill, nevertheless agreed that the committee needs more time to study the legislation.

"This is a huge bill, with five major sections — it's an omnibus bill related to national security," he said.

"Each section needs to be discussed vividly."

He pointed out that the anti-terror laws introduced by the Liberal government following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 spent 19 days at committee.

"It's possible to hold evening hearings … to meet during break weeks. Let's do this right in the interests of Canadians."

Easter stressed that his party sees the need for the bill.

"But there are concerns that have to be addressed, so let's hear the technicalities, and what the legal experts have to say," he said.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Dennis O'Connor was a former Supreme Court justice. In fact, he was the associate chief justice of Ontario.
    Feb 24, 2015 12:41 PM ET
With files from Julie Van Dusen, Chris Hall and Rosemary Barton