As clock ticks down to election, senator vows national security bill will pass in time
Bill C-59, first introduced in 2017, proposes a major revamp of Canada's national security architecture
The man tasked with leading the Liberal government's monster national security bill through the choppy waters of the Senate is promising clear passage, despite fears that Bill C-59 won't get royal assent before the election.
"This bill will pass and it will pass in a timely fashion," said Independent Senator Marc Gold, the bill's Senate sponsor.
"This is not the kind of bill that should be the subject of partisan politics."
Bill C-59, first introduced in 2017, proposes a major revamp of Canada's national security architecture — the first major changes in decades.
The bill tasks a new intelligence commissioner with overseeing espionage activities and sets up a watchdog to keep tabs on the agencies dealing with national security, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Communications Security Establishment and the Canada Border Services Agency.
There's also a section giving CSIS the authority to collect, retain and use datasets — electronic archives of information.
One of the bill's more controversial sections creates the Communications Security Establishment Act, which would give the Communications Security Establishment — Canada's signals intelligence agency — new powers to both defend critical Canadian infrastructure (telecommunications, nuclear plants) from attacks, and launch cyberattacks.
Leah West, who studies national security law at the University of Toronto, said it's critical to get CSE's new powers in place before the federal election campaign gets underway.
"If it was necessary to defend the Canadian election, [CSE] could either defend Canadian infrastructure from bot-net attacks or it could use an offensive operation, potentially, to shut down the site where [there are] lines of communication between Russia and Canada," she said.
"My emotions are frayed at this point because it has been so long ... I'm really a little bit fearful that, in the political climate right now ... politics will get in the way of a really important bill."
Privacy and civil liberties groups have attacked the bill, arguing it comes close to authorizing mass surveillance.
"There's an ability to collect data that is publicly available, and 'publicly available' is defined in such a way that it could be interpreted to mean even information that's been hacked," said lawyer Meghan McDermott, who provides counsel to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
"This could be very sensitive information, and also metadata about us and our movements and what we're doing every day and who we associate with. That's really important and it's much too vague an idea that's been baked into C-59."
But even McDermott feels conflicted about what will happen if the bill doesn't pass.
It's one of the biggest changes to national security laws that will happen in our generation.- Meghan McDermott, BCCLA
"It is not perfect and there are a lot of things that we do not like in it, that we do not think should become law," she said.
"But because it's correcting and filling so many gaps that we have seen exploited by our security intelligence agencies, I think on balance it's better for Canadians to have the laws [and] that [it] would be good if C-59 is actually enacted.
"It's one of the biggest changes to national security laws that will happen in our generation."
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has called the bill "a vital piece of legislation" that "needs to get done."
Documents obtained under access to information show that, when the minister met last fall with Daniel Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence, he was encouraged by his department to raise Bill C-59 as a topic of conversation and highlight CSE's new influence.
Months later, it still waits in Parliament's in-box.
The House of Commons kicked the bill over to the Senate in June 2018, with minor amendments from the lower chamber's Liberal-dominated national security committee. (Attempts by both the NDP and Conservatives to change the bill were voted down.)
Last week there was a flare-up when the chair of the Senate national security and defence committee, Sen. Gwen Boniface, tried to set a date to begin talking about the bill. That was shot down by Conservative Sen. Don Plett on procedural grounds.
Plett said his party is still eager to debate the bill.
"The Conservatives support many aspects of it. I will certainly listen with open ears at the committees and I will listen to the experts, and there may or may not be amendments coming as a result of that," he said.
That guarded support only goes so far; Plett said his caucus fears the bill doesn't go far enough to prevent attacks on Canadian soil.
"The threat of terrorism and extreme violence ... to Canada and to Canadians is very, very real. This bill would be irresponsible in the face of those threats," Plett said.
The Senate national security committee will finish its work on the Liberal government's firearms bill first before turning to Bill C-59.
While parliamentarians sort this out, several families have had to put their travel plans on hold.
'No fly kids' wait in limbo
For years, the government has been aware that innocent people — including children — face difficulties at the airport because their names are similar to those of individuals cited by the Passenger Protection Program, also known as the 'no-fly list'.
Zamir Khan's five-year-old son Sebastian has been held up at the border since he was an infant. He helped found the group No Fly List Kids to advocate for a redress system — something Bill C-59 promises, although the details are hazy.
The group's lawyer, Khalid Elgazzar, said the bill likely would give those falsely flagged as ineligible to fly for security reasons a special number they can use when booking airline tickets to prevent being blocked at the airport.
"There's a wide range of problems that I've heard, some include being stopped overseas, having passports confiscated in other countries, some where families didn't feel very comfortable," he said.
"There's also issues of stigma. Some of the families are racialized ... If you're a racialized family or come from a particular ethnic background or religious background, and you're flagged for national security reasons, then there's a stigma that attaches to that as well."
For Khan, it's meant years of putting his family members' private lives on the front page of major newspapers.
"That's the sacrifice that my wife and I have agreed to make. We said, 'If we can fix this thing, that'll be worth it,'" he said.
"But if it all goes to naught because of some ... political posturing and we're left with no improvements? That's a hard pill for me to swallow."
Senators resume sitting on Monday. Gold is urging Canadians to be patient with them.
"We're not famous for our speed but I hope that we deserve our reputation (for) thoroughness," he said.