October 20, 2015 -
A stunning political victory in Canada has resulted in the election of a Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau. In a major turnaround, the third place party was vaulted to a majority government in yesterday’s federal election, on the basis of a platform that promised “real change”.
The result sees the ouster of Stephen Harper, who for 10 years led the country based on an agenda of law-and-order, national security and a strong economy. Arguably his results were failed, as he emphasized prison building and mandatory sentences during an era of declining crime, experienced multiple terrorist acts, and saw massive reductions in manufacturing output during his time in office.
While progressives had long been alienated by the rabid partisanship, secrecy and vindictiveness of Harper’s self-branded government, moderate and undecided voters simply followed tradition and “threw the bums out” based on the inevitable fatigue that accompanies a decade in power. The electorate found a viable alternative in a Liberal Party, led by the son of a former prime minister, who was renown for enshrining “rights and freedoms” in the country’s constitution. The younger Trudeau will face the challenge of living up to that legacy.
In May, the Liberals supported a secret police bill introduced by the now defeated Conservative government which granted greater powers to police authorities to target activities that could “undermine the security of Canada” as well as activities that the government deems detrimental to Canada’s interests. Legal experts characterized the law as a “blunt instrument” which gives added surveillance powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), including the power to engage in dirty tricks and disruptive activities, without a judicial check-and-balance.
Critics of the bill believes it turns CSIS into what the Global and Mail describes as a “secret police” force with little oversight or accountability. Critics also argue that the bill opens the door for constitutional violations, which includes censorship of free expression online. They claim that the bill will lead to “dragnet surveillance” and data sharing on innocent citizens. Critics also believe that the Canadian government, without warrant, will now be able to obtain sensitive information that can reveal everything from a citizen’s financial status, medical history, sexual orientation, and even religious and political beliefs. Civil libertarians and the labor movement also note that the law is tremendously vague on what constitutes terrorist activity, and many Canadians fear that environmental, Indigenous and anti-Israeli activism will fall within the government’s definition.
The Trudeau Liberals supported the bill but argued that it would seek greater oversight over the operation of Canada’s national security agencies, if and when, they came to power. The party committed, if they won the election, to introduce new legislation that would guarantee that all CSIS warrants would respect the constitution, along with ensuring that Canadians would not be limited from lawful protests and advocacy. The legislation would also limit wiretap power and would provide clarity on what constitutes terrorist activity and propaganda.
However, instead of seeking to amend the bill with the addition of comprehensive and independent judicial oversight, Trudeau’s election platform calls for creation of an all-party committee to monitor and oversee the operations of every government department and agency with national security responsibilities. His proposal therefore subjects security operations to parliamentary politics and partisanship, instead of sober legal precepts and perspective. Hopefully their approach will evolve to judicial oversight, since with the emergence of Big Data analytic techniques, Canadian anti-terror agencies need more substantive legal oversight than ever before.
The second challenge the new Liberal government will face on the privacy front will concern the implementation of the previous government’s new security screening system for public servants. The new screening process for all of Canada’s employees include fingerprinting, along with mandatory credit checks and sweeping Internet profiling. Under old security measures, fingerprinting, along with credit and criminal checks, were only conducted if a prospective employee was dealing with national security or financial transactions. But with the new security screening standard, these checks are now a blanket requirement for all job applicants.
Along with a criminal check, the new screening process for all employees also requires a law enforcement inquiry. This entails gathering data from police databases, including convictions under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, and any records of peace bonds, restraining orders and mental health incidents, whether they resulted in charges or not. Basic reliability status will also require an Internet profile of current and prospective civil servants to gain insight into their ideology, associations and character.
Government employee unions have said that credit and criminal checks, along with fingerprinting and public Internet searches are invasive and unnecessary for most ordinary employees that do not work in intelligence, finance or security. The unions also argue that screening measures force employees to reveal details about their lifestyle and personal choices, which in turn violate “reasonable” expectations of privacy.
The matter, which is before the courts, will be a substantive test of the new Trudeau government on whether it will truly respect both privacy rights and public servants. Expectations are that Trudeau will embrace a more moderate policy on prospective employee profiling. The new government will be eager to demonstrate that it does not distrust its employees, citizens or is disdainful of their respective rights and freedoms.