National security review must acknowledge Canadian government's shortcomings
Overarching outlook of 'Green Paper' review doesn't include strong civil liberties perspective
The Liberal Party is conducting a national security review process to figure out how to fulfil its election-time promise of amending the "problematic" parts of Bill C-51, now the Anti-Terrorism Act.
The government has published a 21-page "Green Paper," along with a 73-page backgrounder, to pose questions to the Canadian public on the parameters of what reforms should take place.
But the Green Paper's rhetoric and the national consultation itself go beyond just the topic of Bill C-51. It goes on to pose more general and philosophical questions of what kind of society Canadians want to live in and how the citizens of this country want to prioritize what are apparently the competing rights of security and freedom.
Unfortunately, though the Green Paper admirably addresses the important issues of Canada's national review structure (or lack thereof), as well as the secretive relationship between intelligence-gathering and the due process of law, its overarching outlook doesn't include a strong civil liberties perspective.
Security mindset ignores privacy concerns
It is evident from reading the discussion paper that its primary purpose, along with the national consultation itself, is a way for the current government to entrench a certain security mindset that omits the specific (and well-documented) concerns that have arisen in civil society in the post-9/11 era.
In other words, the consultation process and the Green Paper seem to have more or less ignored the robust criticisms regarding Canada's national security apparatus by civil society organizations, preferring instead to source (or "consult") public opinion as if Canadians haven't been voicing their concerns all this time.
For instance, numerous civil society organizations, such as Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) have sounded the alarm on how Canadian agencies have collected metadata over the years.
Individuals within government such as Daniel Therrien, the Harper-appointed Privacy Commissioner, along with Jean-Pierre Plouffe, the Commissioner of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), have voiced similar concerns as to how current collection of "signals intelligence," which includes metadata, continues to jeopardize the privacy of Canadian citizens.
And yet, despite these voices, the Green Paper doesn't include any mention of the CSE, Canada's main agency for the collection of signals intel.
Not just a PR stunt
By no means is the national consultation, along with the Green Paper, simply a useless exercise in public relations. The process can be seen as a necessary first step for building an adequate security environment that doesn't encroach upon the basic human rights that are enshrined in the Charter.
The Green Paper does make mention of issues like CSIS's powers of disruption, which were given to them by Bill C-51, and it does call into question the very constitutionality of the current way that intelligence is being used as evidence in court (such as usage of secret evidence by security agencies, etc.).
That the framework of the national consultation process and Green Paper doesn't directly acknowledge fears with respect to this development is a cause for concern.- Steven Zhou
But the point is that the tone or perspective of the whole consultation process doesn't seem to be one where the government is taking itself to task for the implementation of a security apparatus that's accountable.
That the government and its security agencies were endowed with new powers of information sharing and unilateral disruption before the question of accountability was addressed lies at the foundation of why so many Canadians have reacted negatively toward the expansion of their country's security regime.
Though the consultation process is beginning to source and perhaps channel some useful criticisms, there's reason to suspect that the solutions or changes that it leads to won't actually address the more systemic problems of privacy protection and civil liberties.
Review fails to address issues
Moreover, the Liberal administration's emphasis on parliamentary review and oversight of its security agencies, though of some use, doesn't address the reality that parliamentarians can't possibly be tasked with the close appraising of a security regime that collects massive amounts of intelligence and data.
The whole apparatus has gotten so bloated primarily because the government, regardless of which party, was never truly forced to respect or accept privacy interests in the digital, post-9/11 world. Now it has gotten to the point where oversight itself simply isn't enough to protect and preserve the integrity of Canadian civil rights and liberties.
That the framework of the national consultation process and Green Paper doesn't directly acknowledge fears with respect to this development is a cause for concern.
Steven Zhou is a Toronto writer who has experience in human rights advocacy. He has worked for Human Rights Watch, OXFAM Canada and other NGOs.
- Jean-Pierre Plouffe is the current commissioner of the Communications Security Establishment. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this column.Nov 03, 2016 10:07 AM CT