As the Harper government moved to speed up the parliamentary debate on its latest anti-terrorism legislation, four former prime ministers — three Liberal and one Progressive Conservative — are among almost two dozen prominent Canadians calling for stronger security oversight.

The joint statement, published in English and French newspapers Thursday, comes as the Conservative government proposes a new mandate for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

"Protecting human rights and protecting public safety are complementary objectives, but experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security," the statement says.

"Given the secrecy around national security activities, abuses can go undetected and without remedy.

"This results not only in devastating personal consequences for the individuals, but a profoundly negative impact on Canada's reputation as a rights-respecting nation."

The letter is signed by Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Joe Clark, John Turner and 18 others involved in security matters between 1968 and 2014, including:

  • five former Supreme Court justices.
  • seven former Liberal solicitors general and ministers of justice.
  • three past members of the intelligence review committee.
  • two former privacy commissioners.
  • a retired RCMP watchdog.

The Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) currently oversees CSIS, conducting several studies each year and tabling a report in Parliament. But critics point out the review committee is just that, a review body, not an oversight agency peering over the spy service's shoulder in real time.

Recommendations not implemented

The letter notes that detailed recommendations for a new oversight regime, proposed in 2006 following the inquiry into the Maher Arar torture affair, were never implemented.

One of the signatories, former Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache, said Thursday that the public's confidence was at stake.

"The system we have in place was put in place in another time, when conditions were different and when maybe we hadn't had these problems that brought the Arar inquiry and the other inquiries," he told Radio-Canada.

"When we're revising these powers, why not at the same time look at the sufficiency of the measures for supervision?" he said. "I wonder why it's so difficult for the government to accept to just have a look at it?"

The signatories also point out that in October 2004, a report calling for parliamentary oversight of national security activities was agreed upon by representatives of all parties, including then-Opposition critic Peter MacKay. The legislation to enact it was not adopted before the fall of Paul Martin's minority government.

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Defence Minister Jason Kenney, right, and Admiral William Gortney, NORAD and U.S. Northern Command, speak to media at the Conference of Defence Associations meeting in Ottawa Thursday. Kenney told reporters that the government's anti-terrorism bill is a balanced approach that is modest compared to other countries. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Speaking with reporters at a security conference in Ottawa Thursday, Defence Minister Jason Kenney said that "we have the same strong system of oversight that has always existed [for CSIS] and that has been supported by every government, including the last Liberal government."

However, the Harper government eliminated the inspector general office at CSIS — which served as an internal watchdog — and transferred those responsibilities to SIRC in 2012, saving almost $1 million annually as part of government-wide austerity measures.

Time allocation motion passed

Government House leader Peter Van Loan said Thursday the government's introduction of a time allocation motion for the new anti-terrorism bill was not a move to cut off debate, but rather a way to handle scheduling of priority legislation.

But opposition MPs are concerned about not having enough time to review and debate the bill's more controversial measures. A motion passed Thursday could see the bill sent to a Commons committee for review by early next week.

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NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says the wording of Bill C-51 is vague and leaves the door open to spying on political opponents. His party plans to try to stop the bill from being approved. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

On Wednesday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair announced his party intends to vote against the bill, while Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said his party will support it, but is proposing amendments to improve parliamentary oversight.

The government may be open to amendments. Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said Wednesday that MPs should "devote our time to seeing how we can make it even better," and Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in a scrum Thursday that amendments will be up to the Commons committee that reviews the bill.

Opposition MPs have voiced concerns that even if the legislation passes, security agencies will not have sufficient resources to make effective use of their new powers due to recent budget cuts.

'Vast majority' of Canadians support bill

The New Democrats have put forward an amendment to have the House decline to proceed further on the bill.

Among the reasons given is that it threatens our way of life by asking Canadians to choose between their security and their freedoms, it was drafted without consultation with other parties and it "irresponsibly" provides CSIS with a sweeping new mandate without increasing oversight.

The motion will be voted on Monday as well.

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Reporters grilled Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney Wednesday about C-51, the Harper government's latest anti-terrorism bill. The minister is in Washington Thursday for a summit on countering violent extremism. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Kenney said Thursday that the bill doesn't actually give new powers to police or intelligence agencies, but rather to judges and courts. He also said the vast majority of Canadians support the bill.

An Angus Reid Institute poll released Thursday suggested four in five Canadians support Bill C-51, while one in three felt the new powers may not go far enough. However, 69 per cent of those surveyed wanted additional oversight to ensure law enforcement's powers aren't abused.

"This is a threat that is going to keep mutating … We have to be flexible in addressing the needs of our security and police agencies to counter the threat," Kenney said, adding that the bill's measures are "actually quite modest compared to the legislative setting in most other liberal democracies."

Blaney is in Washington Thursday, speaking about the Harper government's latest initiatives at a White House summit on countering violent extremism.

With files from The Canadian Press