Bill C-51 amendments seem unconnected to committee process

Barring a last-minute scheduling change later this morning, the House public safety committee will kick off — and, most likely, wrap up — clause-by-clause review of the government's anti-terror bill.

Not one Conservative MP publicly voiced concerns during last week's marathon hearings

Protesters hit the streets across the country earlier this month as part of a national day of action against the government's proposed anti-terror bill. On Friday, CBC News reported that the Conservatives were ready to make some changes to the bill when it goes to clause-by-clause review at committee this week. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Barring a last-minute scheduling change later this morning, the House public safety committee will kick off — and, most likely, wrap up — clause-by-clause review of the government's anti-terror bill.

And barring a last-minute legislative strategy change, Conservative committee members will arrive at that meeting with a handful of small, but not insignificant, proposed amendments, the details of which were helpfully provided to CBC News by a senior government official last week.

Among the changes the government is prepared to make:

  • Removing the word "lawful" from the section listing exemptions to the new counterterror measures addressing protests
  • Clarifying that CSIS agents, while newly empowered to "disrupt" potential threats, will not be able to make arrests.
  • Establishing limits on inter-agency information sharing.
  • Adjusting a provision that would have given the public safety minister the power to direct air carriers to do "anything" that, in his or her view, is "reasonably necessary" to prevent a terrorist act.

While it may be tempting for parliamentary power-boosters to pop the champagne at what could be seen as a textbook example of the committee system working as intended, such celebration might be premature.

As Green Party Leader Elizabeth May noted while presenting her proposed amendments on Monday, such changes are "encouraging," but she credits them to public pressure, not parliamentary due diligence.

"They didn't listen to witnesses," she said.

"They're watching the polls."

Tory members irrelevant?

The series of events that led to amendments for the bill would seem to back up her theory.

For one thing, the Conservatives actually on the committee — whose number includes Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney's parliamentary secretary, Roxanne James — appear to have either been playing their cards close to the chest during last week's hearings, or were all but irrelevant to the decision to amend the bill.

At no point during the 18 or so hours of testimony on the bill did even one of them publicly voice concerns over any of the provisions that they will now propose be tweaked in response to witness concerns.

In fact, in at least one case — removing the word "lawful" — multiple witnesses, including those who were largely supportive of the bill, had recommended exactly such a change, as they were worried that it could otherwise see protests involving peaceful non-violent disobedience captured under the new measures.

As First Nations lawyer, author and activist Pam Palmater explained during her appearance before the committee: "The second we do a round dance in the street without a permit, it very quickly becomes unlawful."

Several of those witnesses pointed out that, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Liberal government of the day had initially included a similar provision in its anti-terror package, but struck it from the text after the expert witnesses of the day expressed concerns over potential overreach.

In response, Conservative committee members did their best to get witnesses they clearly saw as sympathetic to the government position — current and former law enforcement and security experts — to try to debunk such claims with varying degrees of success.

Witnesses who raised red flags over the implications for privacy — another criticism expected to be addressed via amendment today — were greeted with similar skepticism.

Indeed, the federal privacy commissioner didn't even make the witness list.

The Tory committee members had been unwavering in their confidence that not even a comma in the bill needed changing. So it came as a shock to hear the government was prepared to rework some of the more problematic sections.

Major concerns unaddressed

Several major concerns have still not been addressed by the amendments to be put forward by the government, including a contentious provision to allow CSIS agents to seek judicial authority to breach the Charter of Rights and Freedoms while engaging in disruption activities, and a beefed-up no-fly-list policy that still leaves it to airline employees, not law enforcement, to inform passengers who have been deemed too dangerous to fly that they won't be getting on the plane as planned.

At the moment, it's not clear whether the Conservative contingent will also be advised to throw their majority support behind additional, opposition-backed amendments or vote to reject certain clauses entirely, which would also result in changes being made to the bill.

A similar parliamentary plot twist occurred last spring, when after weeks of doggedly defending every aspect of Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre's controversial bid to revamp Canada's election laws, Conservative committee members found themselves introducing amendments to address precisely the concerns they had dismissed as unfounded.

And while it is always encouraging to see a government respond to constructive criticism, it doesn't do much to bolster the belief that committees — and, by inference their members — are masters of their own destiny when you can see senior ministerial advisers pulling the strings behind the scenes.


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