MPs are debating a controversial anti-terrorism bill that would reinstate provisions for preventive arrest and investigative hearings, measures that were part of a 2001 bill but were "sunsetted" in 2007.

The bill was introduced in the Senate last year, and it's suddenly in third reading in the House, with government members debating it with a sense of urgency.

The bill will bring back two central provisions that were originally instituted by the Chrétien government after the 9/11 attacks in New York but were "sunsetted" after a five-year period.

One provision allowed for "preventative detention," meaning someone can be held in custody for up to three days just on suspicion of being involved in terrorism but without a charge being laid. The person can then be bound by certain probationary conditions for up to a year, and if he or she refuses, can be jailed for 12 months.

The second is an "investigative hearing" in which someone suspected of having knowledge of a terrorist act can be forced to answer questions, and if he or she refuses, can be imprisoned for up to 12 months. The objective of this clause is not to prosecute the person for a criminal offence, but merely to gather information.

These two provisions from the 2001 act expired after five years, but in 2007 when the government wanted to extend them for a further three years, the Liberal opposition led by then-leader Stéphane Dion refused approval.  Another attempt to restore the provisions died on the order paper when an election was called.

Now the Conservative government has a majority and can reinstate the measures on its own, but the Liberals say they will support the bill. The NDP opposes the bill and is questioning the timing of the government suddenly moving the bill into an emergency-like debate, accusing it of "being asleep since December."

A crime to leave Canada to plan for terrorism

The bill, entitled the Combating Terrorism Act, also introduces a new provision, making it illegal to leave the country with the intention of committing an act of terrorism which could apply, for instance, to anyone planning on attending an al-Qaeda training camp, or plotting an act with others overseas. The new provision seems designed for arrests and charges in the early planning stages before the person even leaves Canada.

The bill also stiffens penalties for certain acts. Anyone who facilitates an act of terrorism by the communication of false information, such as the loan of a cellphone to be used for a false bomb threat, can be imprisoned for up to 14 years. The same 14-year maximum is in place for anyone who harbours or conceals someone who is contemplating or has committed a terrorist act.

There are also changes that recognize that some of the secrecy enshrined in the original act has been challenged by the courts. The old bill allowed an investigative hearing or a sealing order for court documents to happen without any public notice if the government claimed that national security was at risk.

In the new act, there's a recognition that a federal court can make documents public. In the past, even an application for a ban on information by the government was secret. Now a court can order the application be made public. 

The same five-year sunset clause is in the new bill.

NDP argues bill threatens civil liberties

In debate Monday, the NDP argued that the bill threatens the civil liberties of Canadians and that there was no evidence offered by the Conservatives that the bill is necessary. More than one NDP MP pointed out that two individuals accused of plotting terrorism were apprehended Monday without the assistance of the provisions of the anti-terror legislation.

Conservative MP Joan Crockett pointed out that a new provision proposed in the bill targets those who are planning "to receive terrorist training." 

Crockett said that clause could have applied to the two men from London, Ont., who are alleged to have participated in an attack on a gas plant in Algeria. Many people in her riding of Calgary Centre, she said, worry about danger at gas plants when they travel overseas to work in them.

Traffic on social media Monday speculated about the coincidence of the government rushing debate on the anti-terrorism bill  on the same day the RCMP announced a major terrorism arrest involving an alleged attack planned on a Via Rail train in the Greater Toronto Area.

Asked by reporters about the timing of the hastily rescheduled debate, NDP defence critic Jack Harris said, "It is a little bit odd that we're having it the same day we're dealing with new legislation in the House of Commons, legislation that was put into effect ten years ago and frankly never used, and sunsetted five years ago and now being brought back again today, that's certainly suspicious."

"Whether the timing of the Mounties is predicated by that, that I don't know. I would certainly hope that the Minister of Public Safety wouldn't seek an announcement of this kind but I wouldn't want to impugn the motives of the RCMP in this," Harris said.

In a brief statement Monday afternoon in the foyer of the House of Commons Monday afternoon, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said, "Preventing, countering and prosecuting terrorism is a priority for our government. Canada will not tolerate terrorist activity and we will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those who support terrorist activity."

Debate continues on the bill on Tuesday and will last until the speaker's list of MPs is exhausted, unless the government gives notice of its intention to move time allocation to bring the third reading stage to a close as early as Wednesday. 

The legislation's last vote will follow the conclusion of this final debate and is expected before the end of this week.