Parliament to review terror law

posted on November 20, 2004 | in Category Bill C-36 | PermaLink

Original author: Janice Tibbetts Source: The Ottawa Citizen URL: [link] (subscribers only) Date: November 15, 2004 Lawmakers to decide if 'draconian' law should be altered or even scrapped

Parliament will embark within weeks on an expansive review of Canada's anti-terrorism laws to examine whether extra powers given to police and government in the emotional months after the 2001 U.S. terror attacks should be softened or scrapped. The anti-terrorism bill, introduced when the World Trade Center rubble had barely stopped smouldering, was one of the fastest pieces of legislation ever passed by the government of former prime minister Jean Chretien, despite being a lengthy 171 pages long and containing 146 provisions.In order to drum up enough political support to push the bill through the House of Commons by Christmas 2001, the government agreed to an automatic review after three years so calmer heads could examine whether the rushed provisions were excessive.

"In the heat of 9/11, some of us went along with those measures, taking consolation in knowing they would be reviewed," recalled Liberal MP Paul DeVillers, the chairman of the House of Commons justice committee.

The committee will likely oversee the probe, but the government is also considering establishing a new public security committee or even a special joint committee of members of Parliament and senators to handle the review. By law, it must begin by Dec. 18 and be completed within one year.

The key questions will be whether the government and police have abused their powers, and if the laws are too much of an assault on individual freedoms to merit keeping.

Already, judges all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada have taken swipes at state secrecy in court challenges to the anti-terrorism laws, which they say are an unnecessary affront to the principle of open courts.

"There's a hell of a lot that should be changed," said Alan Borovoy, spokesman for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and one of the law's harshest critics. "Those who seek to defend these measures should have to justify them and if they can't be justified, they should be scrapped."

The Anti-Terrorism Act has been widely described as one of the most draconian bills ever passed in Canada. Among other things, it allowed for new "preventive arrest" and jailing of people suspected of considering a terrorist act.

The act also allowed for investigative hearings, which critics compared to "star chambers," that would compel a person who may know something about a terrorist plot to testify in secret before a judge, without being charged.

Government reports show police had not made any preventive arrests by the end of last year. But the investigative hearing was invoked at least once, culminating in a Supreme Court of Canada ruling this year that upheld the constitutional validity of the practice, but found the B.C. judge in the case went too far by shutting out the public.

The question parliamentarians should consider in their review is not whether police and government have abused their powers, but whether the potential for abuse is too great to let the expansive measures survive, Mr. Borovoy said.

"We have to be careful not to rely not too much on incidents that have already happened as a barometer," he said. "One of the problems with over broad laws that create excessive powers is that they are used in ways that people never imagined when they were first created."

Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan was the justice minister when she introduced the legislation in October 2001, saying: "The measures you see before us are justified to deal with the scourge of terrorism."

And there were warnings from the RCMP that Canadians themselves were vulnerable.

'I think there was a good deal of public sentiment in favour of this," said Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto terrorism analyst. Three years later, Mr. Wark says he does not believe there is widespread public anxiety about the Anti-Terrorism Act "and I don't think there's any groundswell of feeling that it should be abolished."

Ms. McLellan is expected to take the position during the review that the Anti-Terrorist Act strikes an appropriate balance between public protection and freedom and that no changes are needed.

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, an expert in counter-terrorism, expressed concerns while he was still a backbencher, but it remains to be seen whether he will revive his reservations at committee hearings.

In a public opinion piece in the Citizen in 2002, Mr. Cotler called for an expansive annual review and he raised red flags about the broad definition of terrorism contained in the act as well as a provision that allows for government to issue security certificates for 15 years that prevent the disclosure of information considered sensitive.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2004