A former head of the committee that oversees Canada's spies has a warning for the current chair: It's generally not a good idea for someone in their position to act as a lobbyist.

Paule Gauthier was commenting on questions surrounding former Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl, currently the head of the Security Intelligence Review Committee.

Strahl has come under fire after it was revealed he is also a registered lobbyist for Enbridge, the company pushing to build the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to B.C.

SIRC’s job is to monitor the activities of CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which has been known to keep tabs on environmentalists and native groups opposed to pipelines. Forest Ethics, a group opposed to Northern Gateway, issued a statement this week calling on Strahl to step down as SIRC chair.

Gauthier, who served as chair of SIRC from 1996 to 2005, doesn’t see a conflict of interest in Strahl working as a lobbyist, but acknowledges it could create the perception of one.

“I think it would be much better to refrain from these activities,” she said in an interview from her law office in Quebec City.

Gauthier says if Strahl has followed the rules and is satisfied he’s not in conflict, there shouldn’t be a problem. But she can see how a SIRC chair doing lobbying work could raise eyebrows.

“It’s putting himself or herself in maybe a difficult situation that you cannot expect when you accept the mandate as a lobbyist,” she said.

Strahl has been quoted as saying he has checked with the federal ethics commissioner to make sure his work is above board. He told one interviewer if SIRC were asked to look at any files involving pipelines, he wouldn’t touch them.

Part-time job

The position of SIRC chair is a part-time job paid on a per diem basis — about $600 a day plus travel expenses. Another former chair says that’s part of the problem.

Ronald Atkey was appointed the first-ever SIRC chair when the committee was established in 1984. He now teaches at the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario.

Atkey has long argued the position of chair should be a full-time job with a full-time salary so anyone serving would not have to look for outside work.

“I think the two organizations that Canadians should worry the most about are CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada) and CSIS,” he said by phone from London, Ont.

"They’re fine organizations with fine people doing important work. But they’re asked to go close to the line in complying with the law. I think, therefore, to give public comfort that these groups are monitored properly after the fact, I think a full-time watchdog may be in order.”

Wesley Wark sees merit in that idea. He’s a security expert and visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. A part-time chair, he says, is “one of a number of problems that makes the Security Intelligence Review Committee less robust than it could be.”

“I think the position should be full-time and we should also define the job properly,” Wark said.

“You do want someone with considerable stature, considerable power, considerable experience. And somebody really to be a critic when criticism is needed.”

Office cut in 2012

Wark says there was more of that critical oversight when CSIS had its own inspector general.

The Conservative government abolished that office in 2012, arguing it would save money and end duplication by allowing SIRC to take over all monitoring of CSIS. The outgoing director of the inspector general’s office, Eve Plunkett, warned at the time the closure would be a “huge loss.”

Wark believes the government regarded the office and its often critical reviews of CSIS as “an annoyance.” As for Chuck Strahl, Wark says he’s less concerned about the former cabinet minister’s lobbying work than he is with SIRC’s overall ability to act as an effective watchdog.

“I just think, given the ways in which the intelligence world in Canada has been transformed and the problems that it presents and the skepticism that I think now surrounds the notion that anybody is really keeping a watch on intelligence agencies to make sure they don’t break the law or abuse their powers, I think something does need to be done,” he said.

“And that’s the real story. It’s not whether Mr. Strahl is a lobbyist. It’s what do we need to do to fix SIRC.”