While the head of the watchdog committee overseeing Canada’s intelligence agency is under attack for also being a lobbyist for the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, it turns out that half of the other Harper government appointees keeping an eye on the spies also have ties to the oil business.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has joined a growing chorus of critics calling for the resignation of former Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl as chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC).
The committee oversees the activities of Canada’s spy service, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), including surveillance of groups opposed to construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the B.C. coast.
Strahl has touched off a political controversy for registering with the B.C. government as a lobbyist for Enbridge, the company wanting to build the pipeline.
To be clear: Strahl has long had a reputation as one of the straightest arrows in Canadian politics, and there is no evidence of any actual conflict of interest in his work for Enbridge.
His problems are entirely matters of public perception.
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In a recent television interview, Strahl said he would recuse himself from anything to do with the proposed pipeline that came before the spy service review committee, passing the case to one of the other four members.
But a few of them may have their own problems of perception.
For example, Denis Losier is an accomplished former New Brunswick politician, bureaucrat and insurance company top executive.
But he is also on the board of directors of Enbridge N.B., a wholly-owned subsidiary of the pipeline and gas company of the same name, Strahl’s client.
Yves Fortier is one of Canada’s most pre-eminent and highly respected lawyers.
He was previously a member of the board of TransCanada Pipelines, the company now behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas.
That project is currently being blocked in the U.S. by the Obama administration, and has been the target of huge protests.
Former Reform MP Deborah Grey is one member of the spy service oversight committee with no apparent connections to the oil industry.
But she does have long ties to Stephen Harper (he used to work in her MP’s office) and friendly connections in a government that has branded pipeline opponents “radicals.”
That leaves Frances Lankin, former Ontario NDP cabinet minister in Bob Rae’s government, and retired long-time head of the United Way in Toronto.
Among the five members of the intelligence oversight committee, Lankin alone has no ties to either the current government or the oil industry.
But any group wanting to file a complaint to her about the spy service will have to hurry: Her five-year appointment expires this month.
Forest Ethics Advocacy is one of the environmental groups apparently targeted in CSIS surveillance, and is now publicly calling for Strahl’s resignation as head of the oversight committee.
The director of the Vancouver-based group says she is surprised to learn that some other members of SIRC have ties to the oil and pipeline industries.
“What’s becoming clear is there is no impartial body that can oversee CSIS right now,” said Tzeporah Berman. “This is another example of the fox minding the henhouse.”
Berman says Canadians have a right to expect that an important body such as SIRC is “protecting us and being impartial.”
“Instead, what we’re finding is our government is using our tax money to spy on us and support the oil industry.”
Strahl is currently paid up to $650 a day as chairman of SIRC, and the other four members get about half that. All of the positions are part-time.
The lawyer for Forest Ethics, iconic Canadian attorney Clayton Ruby, says if the government wanted effective oversight of its spy service, it would start by paying the watchdogs as full-time jobs, and like judges, members should be banned from taking outside employment.“At the very least, all of them should be banned from lobbying,” Ruby says.
SIRC members contacted by CBC News would only speak on background, but several agreed that at the very least, chairing the committee should be a full-time job.
Whether any of those suggestions or the current kerfuffle over Strahl’s lobbying will move the Harper government to action seems doubtful.
The last time there was any reform of spy service oversight, the Conservative government eliminated the office of the inspector general that was supposed to have virtually unlimited powers to ensure CSIS was operating within the law.
To paraphrase the old saw, what people don’t know can’t hurt the government.