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Security vs. Civil Liberties: MPs Debate New Federal Anti-Terrorism Bill
April 23, 2013
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RCMP officers outside the Toronto home of one of the suspects in the alleged VIA train terror plot

As new details emerge about that alleged terror plot involving a VIA train, a big debate is unfolding on Parliament Hill about security and civil liberties.

MPs are dealing with an anti-terrorism bill, that would give authorities extra powers to arrest and detain people suspected of being involved in terrorism.

The bill, which is sponsored by the government, is called the Combating Terrorism Act. It was introduced a year or so ago, and had been making its way through parliament relatively slowly.

But after the Boston Marathon bombings, the government pushed it to the top of the agenda for yesterday and today, so the bill could go to third reading.

Here are some of the key things the bill would do:

1. it would allow police to pre-emptively detain someone who's suspected of being involved in terrorism and hold them for up to three days without charges

- that person could then face certain probationary conditions for up to a year, and if he/she refuses, he/she can be jailed for 12 months

2. it would bring back "investigative hearings"; if someone is suspected of having knowledge of a terrorist act, he/she can be forced to answer questions

- if he/she refuses to testify in front of a judge, he/she could be jailed for up to a year

- the point, the government says, isn't to prosecute anyone, but to gather information

3. it would be a federal crime for someone to leave, or try to leave Canada, for the purpose of committing terrorism or attending a terrorist training camp

Those first two provisions were law in Canada before - originally brought in by the Liberal government after the September 11 attacks.

But they were "sunsetted" in 2007, after a five year period. In other words, they expired.

security-vs-civil-liberties-MPs-debate-new-federal-anti-terrorism-bill-feature3.jpg Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (left) said the arrests in the alleged VIA plot "demonstrate that terrorism continues to be a real threat to Canada."

"Preventing, countering, and prosecuting terrorism is a priority for our government," he said. "Canada will not tolerate terrorist activity and we will not be used as a safe haven for terrorists or those who support terrorist activity."

With a majority, the Conservatives can push the bill through on their own, but the Liberals say they will support it as well.

The official opposition, the NDP, is against it - arguing that certain measures, related to detaining people, aren't necessary and threaten the civil rights of Canadians.

"The key question that needs to be asked is this: is S-7 necessary or are our current laws sufficient? (Monday's) arrests show that our police force can fight terrorism with existing tools," NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said.

Paul Calarco, who represents the Canadian Bar Association's national criminal justice section, echoed that.

He told the Globe & Mail that the bill "does not add in any substantive way to the tools that already exist in the Criminal Code."

Calarco also said the idea of investigative hearings and forcing people to answer questions or face prison time is "totally contrary to our civil liberties traditions."

The Conservatives, however, said the bill would have clauses to protect people from being indiscriminately targeted and detained.

RCMP officers leave a Montreal court after an appearance by one of the suspects in the alleged VIA train terror plot

To that end, Conservative MP Joan Crockett pointed to a new provision in the bill which argets those who are planning "to receive terrorist training."

The NDP also questioned the timing and urgency around the bill.

"This government's anti-terrorism legislation smacks of political opportunism," said NDP MP Charlie Angus.

"The debate is politicizing the Boston Marathon bombings, and the debate shouldn't happen until we have a chance to ensure that the basic civil liberties are not being undermined by this government."

The Conservatives said the bill is about security and protecting Canadians, and that the opposition has a "head-in-the-sand attitude" about the threat of terrorism.

"They need to stop the navel-gazing and thinking the whole world revolves around them," said Candice Bergen, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety.

"We are giving law enforcement the tools that they need, that they've asked for."

MPs will continue debating the bill today, with a final vote expected before the end of the week.

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