Politics

New public safety minister says Huawei 5G review 'a priority' but offers no timeline

Bill Blair’s promotion to public safety minister is receiving mixed reviews, with some observers saying they're worried the former police chief’s appointment signals a shift away from national security matters.

Canada's relationship with Huawei is further complicated by the broader political dispute with China

Liberal MP Bill Blair arrives for the cabinet swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa on Nov. 20. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

There's still no timetable indicating when Canada will decide whether Chinese tech giant Huawei will be allowed to join Canada's next-generation 5G wireless network, newly sworn-in Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said Thursday.

"I think there are some complex economic and security issues that need to be addressed," Blair said outside of Rideau Hall last night.

"And it will be a priority when we come back to government and when cabinet meets to examine those issues and make that decision. I don't have a specific timetable at this time."

His predecessor Ralph Goodale, who was defeated in the Oct. 21 election, had said a decision would be coming after the election campaign, adding that Canada needed more information from the United States about the nature of the possible security threat.

Some of Canada's Five Eyes intelligence-sharing allies have made moves against Huawei, citing concerns that it is an arm of Chinese military intelligence — an accusation the company denies.

Canada's relationship with Huawei is further complicated by the broader political dispute with China. For nearly a year now, Beijing has held two Canadian civilians in prison without charges. Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have been held by the Chinese since shortly after the RCMP arrested Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on an American extradition warrant.

"It wouldn't surprise me if a decision has been made [on Huawei] but we're waiting on our allies," said Stephanie Carvin, a former analyst for CSIS and an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University.

"For me, it's bigger than Huawei, though. After Huawei, there's going to be something more. As our physical infrastructure is increasingly becoming attached to our digital infrastructure, this is this is going to keep happening. So we need to figure out how the government deals with this from an economic national security standpoint."

The 5G review is just one of the files on Blair's new desk. His portfolio also covers Canada's spy agency, the RCMP, border control. the federal prison system. As the minister of public safety and emergency management, he'll also be called on during natural disasters.

Before the election, the former Toronto police chief sat at the cabinet table as the minister of border security and organized crime reduction — a ministerial offshoot of Public Safety that no longer exists.

Carvin said the decision to collapse the two ministries back into one massive department is disappointing and reflects what she sees as the wider message of the new cabinet: a renewed focus on domestic issues.

"I strongly suspect [Blair is] going to be, probably, given his background, more concerned with the policing aspects than the ... national security aspects," she said.

"The next year and a half, two years is about [the government's] survival. OK, fine. But that means two more years where we're not going to get our long term interests and our national security. And that I think is unfortunate."

Firearm promise

Blair told reporters on Wednesday that firearm reform is another vital file on his agenda.

On the campaign trail, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a re-elected Liberal government would ban semi-automatic assault weapons and enable municipalities to restrict or prohibit handguns.

"We have made a commitment to strengthen gun laws in Canada," said Blair. "There is a sense of urgency." 

Heidi Rathjen, coordinator of the pro-gun control group Poly Remembers, said she's happy to see Blair's appointment. 

"Our feeling is that he is genuinely convinced of the need to substantially strengthen our gun control law, particularly with respect to assault weapons," she told CBC.

"We are hoping that one of his first moves will be to freeze the importation and manufacture of all assault weapons and handguns, in keeping with the spirit of his party's election promises. Why allow the continued sale of assault weapons since they are to be banned in the near future?"

Rod Giltaca, executive director of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, said Blair's comments Wednesday about the timing of gun legislation were vague.

"He was incredibly vague when responding to every question that he was asked regarding gun control, which I can assume may be good for gun owners or maybe bad for gun owners. We don't know," he said.

"I'd like to see them leave the system the way it is at this point. Allowing municipalities to ban handguns is absurd. The only thing that municipalities can do is pass bylaws and issue fines. So I'm not sure how that would affect the lives and activities of criminals."

with files from the Canadian Press

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