News / Canada

Liberal national security bill to boost federal border agency accountability

OTTAWA — The Liberal government plans to introduce wide-ranging national security legislation next week that will include more robust oversight of Canada's border agency.

In addition to new eyes looking over the shoulder of the Canada Border Services Agency, the package will propose changes to ensure existing security watchdogs can exchange information and collaborate more easily on reviews, The Canadian Press has learned.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has consistently said his government has a responsibility to give security agencies the tools they need to keep Canadians safe, while preserving the rights and freedoms people cherish.

In that vein, the extensive set of measures will also follow through on Liberal promises during the last election to deal with "problematic elements" of omnibus security legislation ushered in by the previous Conservative government after a gunman stormed Parliament Hill.

The Conservatives created a new offence of promoting the commission of terrorist offences and broadened the government's no-fly list powers. 

They also gave the Canadian Security Intelligence Service explicit authority to derail terrorist threats, not just gather information about them. However, many Canadians have expressed concerns that such disruption activities could violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Trudeau government has committed to ensuring all CSIS warrants respect the charter, to preserving legitimate protest and advocacy, and to defining terrorist propaganda more clearly.  

It has also pledged that appeals by Canadians on the no-fly list will be subject to mandatory review.

Tens of thousands of people took part in the government's national security consultation and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale recently said there was "a tremendous amount of consensus" on the platform promises.

The Liberals have already taken legislative steps to fulfil one of those commitments — creation of a special committee of parliamentarians to scrutinize security and intelligence activities, including those of the border services agency.

However, civil libertarians, refugee lawyers and committees of both the House of Commons and Senate have called in recent years to do more by instituting some form of independent monitoring of the border agency.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association issued a report this week outlining its proposals for civilian oversight and review of the agency.

Border officers can stop travellers for questioning, take blood and breath samples, and search, detain and arrest citizens and non-citizens without a warrant. The border agency's role in immigration detention has come under scrutiny following in-custody deaths.

But unlike the RCMP and CSIS, the border agency is not overseen by a dedicated review or complaints body.

Another nagging issue has long been the inability of existing watchdogs to share information about security-related complaints and cases due to legal restrictions.

It means watchdogs are often prevented from following the thread of investigations that involve several intelligence and police services, leaving complainants frustrated.   

Legislative measures to permit sharing and co-operation would address decade-old recommendations from the commission of inquiry that examined the overseas torture of Maher Arar, a Canadian telecommunications engineer who was imprisoned in Syria.

The Liberal national security consultations revealed a strong desire to reduce the number of false positive matches with Canada's no-fly list and to improve the appeal process for anyone placed on the list, says a government summary.

A majority who took part in the consultations said the public safety minister should be required to decide within 90 days on any application from someone to have his or her name removed from the list.

It is clear from the results the federal consultations that Canadians have significant concerns regarding privacy and government accountability with sensitive data, said David Christopher, a spokesman for OpenMedia, which works to keep the Internet surveillance-free.

"We'll be watching next week's announcement very closely, and judging the government's proposals against what Canadians said loud and clear during the consultation."

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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