The federal Liberal government is creating a new "super" civilian watchdog to review security and intelligence agencies across government and extending new powers to Canada's electronic spy agency.

The proposed changes were unveiled today as part of a massive legislative overhaul of Canada's anti-terrorism regime.

After tabling the 139-page bill in the House of Commons, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said it aims to strike a better balance between strengthening security in a fast-changing threat environment, and safeguarding the charter and privacy rights of Canadians.

"Governments have no greater responsibilities than keeping their citizens safe and safeguarding their rights and freedoms," he said. "These are the fundamental obligations that underpin the new national security legislation."

Goodale said the new expert review body, called the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, is a "major innovation in our security architecture."

The watchdog agency, which will have a chair and between three and six members, will oversee the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and security functions of the RCMP. It will also have jurisdiction over every government department and agency that has a security or intelligence role, including the Canada Border Services Agency.

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Under new legislation, CSE, the electronic spy agency, will have new powers to work with the Canadian Armed Forces and to carry out offensive operations against foreign actors, to shut down potential cyberattacks in order to protect Canadian assets and critical infrastructure.

The current mandate only allows the agency to defend, block or shield from such attacks.

Today's legislation also creates a new intelligence commissioner position, and that person will authorize certain intelligence and cybersecurity activities before they are carried out.

The commissioner could review and approve ministerial decisions on what kinds of data CSIS can collect, as well as what foreign data could be retained.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the military will benefit from the electronic spy agency's new authorities in the face of escalating cyberthreats.

"This allows CSE to be able to use specialized tools and skills to making sure we as a government have the broad range of tools to make sure our interests are protected," he said.

CSIS retains power to disrupt threat

One of the most controversial elements of C-51, the former Conservative government's anti-terror bill, was to give CSIS new powers to disrupt a terrorist threat. That authority was retained in the Liberal bill, but Goodale said CSIS will now require court approval before taking any action that might violate constitutional rights.

"What is critically important is that it be exercised consistently with the law and the charter, and we've put the framework in place to make sure that is the case," he said.

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The new bill also checks off a number of election campaign promises to repeal what the platform called "problematic elements" of Bill C-51, including:

  • Tightening the definition of "terrorist propaganda."
  • Protecting the right to legitimate protest and advocacy.
  • Upgrading no-fly procedures, though officials conceded today that technological and other complexities, including matching information used by airlines, limit the extent of reforms.

Conservative MP Erin O'Toole criticized what he called an "omnibus security bill" for raising the burden for detaining a potential attacker, and relaxing the language around promoting terror. He said those changes will make it harder to prevent attacks.

"They are watering down Canadian security measures all to maintain the election promise with respect to C-51," he said. "They're making it more difficult for law enforcement and security agencies to protect Canadians on our soil."

But NDP public safety critic Matthew Dubé said the bill does not go far enough in repealing Conservative measures that compromised the privacy of Canadians.

He raised specific concerns about the continued information-sharing regime, and around the retained power of CSIS to disrupt terror threats, calling that "extremely concerning."

"While C-51 was a haphazard way of bringing in these broad powers for national security agencies, the broad powers are still there, they've only been formalized by the Liberals," he said.

Modernizing security apparatus

Goodale said the government will also modernize the security apparatus to adapt to new tools and technology to respond to emerging threats from espionage to confront an increasingly unstable geopolitical environment and "emboldened adversaries who are more creative than ever in their plots."

The legislation was shaped largely by nationwide consultations through online surveys, town halls and MP outreach, he said. 

Last month, the government released a summary of those consultations. It found that while most participants were prepared to accept new measures and powers for law enforcement and national security agencies to protect Canadians, they wanted more checks and balances in place.

"A clear majority of stakeholders considered current oversight to be inadequate, and many believe existing review bodies need more capacity and should be allowed to collaborate on reviews," the report read. "There was strong support among roundtable participants and online responses for a single, expert, independent, non-partisan body to oversee all of the government's national security activities."