Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called reports about surveillance of journalists in Quebec "troubling" Thursday and said he has received assurances from the RCMP and CSIS that no actions are taking place on their part that infringe the rights of reporters.
Trudeau, speaking at a news conference in Ottawa marking the Liberal cabinet's first year in office, said the press is "absolutely critical" in a free democracy.
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"We have actually strong safeguards and protections in place to protect the freedom of the press in the course of business conducted by CSIS and the RCMP," he said. "And I can confirm those safeguards are still very much in place and consistent with the values and concerns this government has and that Canadians have."
Trudeau said he immediately engaged with the heads of the national police force and spy agency after "troubling" reports of surveillance on reporters, and said both confirmed no similar tracking was taking place at the federal level.
Trudeau's remarks came as the Quebec government called an inquiry into a growing scandal over police spying on journalists. Two police forces in the provinces have admitted to telephone surveillance of reporters.
At a news conference in Ottawa, held to respond to a Federal Court ruling on his agency's handling of metadata collected under warrant, CSIS Director Michel Coulombe offered assurances that his agency was not conducting surveillance on reporters.
"I completely agree with the PM on this issue," said Coulombe. "Such a situation is not happening at the federal level."
But when asked by reporters whether his agency had ever performed surveillance on reporters, Coulombe said he could not comment on operational details.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, recalling reports of RCMP officers tailing two Ottawa-based reporters, called for a federal inquiry during today's question period.
Earlier this year, CBC News reported on a rogue group of Mounties investigating the leak of a secret document who spied on two Canadian journalists for more than a week without any authorization.
The RCMP investigators placed the reporters under physical surveillance for nine days in 2007 in the hope they might lead them to the unidentified leaker.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said while he does not normally comment on any operations, he confirmed the activities being reported in Quebec are "not applicable" at the federal level.
Answering a wide-ranging series of questions, Trudeau also staunchly defended Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef, who is embroiled in controversy over her birthplace. Trudeau accused political opponents of "torquing" the fact she was born in Iran, not in Afghanistan as her refugee claim had stated.
"This is a situation where people are conflating, for political reasons, the very real situation that so many refugees face, of fleeing from conflict situations where there was not always perfect clarity on which side of a border one is born on or the conditions in which one is raised," he said. "Mixing that with very deliberate acts of omission or dishonesty in trying to gain Canadian citizenship through fraudulent declarations or attestations."
Trudeau said the fact that a nine-year-old Afghan girl can come here and wind up a cabinet minister is something Canadians are proud of and should celebrate.
Monsef was asked about the birthplace controversy Wednesday, and said that despite some "noisemakers" and "unkindness," most messages she received were supportive.
But Trudeau refused, again, to wade in to the U.S. election. He said after a new President is chosen, his job will be to reaffirm issues that are important to Canadian business, travellers and place in the world.
"I'm not going to express personal opinions on who may or may not occupy that role in the coming months," he said. "I'm going to have to work to defend Canadian interests regardless of who Americans choose next week."
Earlier in the day, Trudeau was peppered with questions from high school students on subjects ranging from electoral reform to the Syrian refugee crisis, during a town hall-style meeting on the eve of the government's first anniversary.
About 300 students from schools across the national capital region attended. Trudeau invited each of the 19 ministers. who took part in the forum to deliver a few words about their accomplishments and goals, and what motivated them to enter politics.
Trudeau was sworn in on Nov. 4, 2015 as Canada's 23rd prime minister, introducing a gender-balanced cabinet that he said "looks like Canada."