Ottawa shooting: Harper government wants to make terror arrests easier

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney gives more indications of how the government intends to strengthen Canada's security laws in the wake of Wednesday's attack in Ottawa on Parliament Hill.

'Accelerated review of police abilities' underway, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney says

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, centre, CSIS director Michel Coulombe, left, and RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson arrive to testify at a parliamentary committee earlier this month. The Harper government is considering making it easier for police to arrest and detain suspects in light of Wednesday's shooting in Ottawa. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney is giving more indications of how the government intends to strengthen Canada's security laws in the wake of Wednesday's attack in Ottawa on Parliament Hill.

The minister told Radio-Canada on Friday that the government is eyeing the thresholds established in Canadian law for the preventive arrests of people thought to be contemplating attacks that may be linked to terrorism. Officials are considering how to make it easier to press charges against so-called lone-wolf attackers.

"The challenges are the thresholds — the thresholds that will allow either preventive arrest, or charges that lead to sentences, or more simple operations," Blaney said in French. "So what the prime minister has asked is for us to review in an accelerated manner the different mechanisms that are offered to police to ensure everyone's security."

In a subsequent interview with CBC News, he said the measures recently introduced in anti-terrorism legislation don't go far enough.

"When we tabled the Combating Terrorism Act, we activated some capability for our law enforcement to do some [preventive arrests]" he told the program Power & Politics in an interview to air Friday.

"What we are realizing now is there are some thresholds that would need adjustment so that it is more practical and more functional to intervene."

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I've been saying that our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest.—Prime Minister Stephen Harper

In Brampton, Ont., Friday, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the government would go beyond an originally planned bill that would have strengthened the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and is looking in particular at trying to pre-empt terrorist activity, Reuters reported.

A senior government source told CBC News the government is considering a single bill that would introduce changes to the legislation governing both security officials and police.

On Thursday morning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reminded the House of Commons that his government had already announced changes to the law governing CSIS, Canada's spy agency, changes that would include anonymity for sources and increased information sharing with other countries.

Harper also said he believes police powers need to be increased.

"In recent weeks, I've been saying that our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest," he said as MPs returned one day after a gunman killed a soldier and made his way into Centre Block on the Parliament Hill.

"They need to be much strengthened, and I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that work which is already underway will be expedited."

No specific threats identified

There was a great deal of chatter about a terrorist attack, but no specific threat to Parliament or Canadian Armed Forces soldiers leading up to this week's attacks in two provinces, CBC News has learned.

Sources with access to the highest clearance intelligence on the two attacks say there were common traits between the two men who carried out the attacks — Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in Ontario and Martin Couture-Rouleau in Quebec — but intelligence made it clear there was no direct link between the two.

A source who has gone over intelligence reports on both men said they both came from broken homes, were adrift in their lives, used drugs and were self-radicalized. 

A senior cabinet source says the prime minister still has confidence in his security and intelligence leaders as well as the quality of the advice he is receiving based on that intelligence, but there will be a push for changes in how security around Parliament Hill is deployed. 

Cabinet is expected to be pushed toward cracking down on those who promote the kind of admiration of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and hatred of Jews and Christians that were found on Couture-Rouleau's Facebook page.​

Timing of legislation unclear

It's not clear when new legislation would be introduced, or when the government might move to boost these police powers.

Liberal MP David McGuinty says he'll wait to see what the government proposes. But he cautioned the government not to move too quickly or too drastically.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said at a press conference Thursday he doesn't have the resources to watch suspected extremists around the clock. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

"Before we proceed with too much speed here in terms of vesting new powers, I think we have an obligation to examine what we have in place, and secondly I think we need to really ask some tough and probative questions," he said.

McGuinty said the government has not yet explained why existing powers haven't been used to charge any of the 90-some radicalized Canadians now on the RCMP radar.

In a news conference yesterday, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson noted the police currently cannot charge anyone who has yet to commit a crime, and suggested there needs to be a change.

"We need to look at all options to deal with this sort of difficult and hard-to-understand threat," he said.

Paulson added that more resources are also needed.

He said he's had to reassign about 250 skilled officers from other federal investigations involving things such as organized crime and financial integrity to investigate potential terrorist suspects. 

"I've had suggestions, people saying on our high-risk travellers, why don't you just put surveillance on them all 24 hours a day," he said. "OK, but there's not going to be anybody else doing anything else.… It is a drain on resources, I can tell you that."

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau also voiced his frustration, saying Parliament needs to act "to provide us the tools within the Constitution that allows us better monitoring mechanisms and opportunities to prevent these types of incidents from taking place."

Still, cautionary notes were sounded even among Conservative stalwarts about the government's plans.

Former public safety minister Stockwell Day also argues the government should proceed carefully.

"There are always limitations, and this is what we have to realize in a free and democratic society. Any time you increase your security, you decrease your freedom somewhere," he said. 

Hate speech changes coming?

Under the current laws, anyone found guilty of inciting hatred against an identifiable group — which the Criminal Code defines as "any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex or sexual orientation" —  can be sentenced to up to two years in prison.

The government's proposed anti-cyberbullying bill, which is currently before the Senate, would expand that list to include mental and physical disabilities.

It would also extend the power of the court to seize and remove online material that promotes genocide.

Last year, Conservatives voted to repeal a controversial section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that gave the federal human rights commission the power to investigate complaints related to online hate speech.

With files from Reuters