By Tim Naumetz
PARLIAMENT HILL—A controversial government bill containing new anti-terrorism detention and arrest powers which human rights groups say threatens civil liberties in Canada passed through the Commons Wednesday after a series of coincidental incidents that kept crucial information almost entirely excluded from the final debate—the successful arrest on Monday of two alleged terrorism plotters in Toronto and Montreal under existing anti-terrorism law.
New Democrat MPs who opposed the government’s Bill S-7, which revives some provisions of Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act, were quick to point out after debate on the bill had ended Tuesday, that the Monday arrests of two men allegedly linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist network buttressed their arguments, along with other terrorism arrests in the past several years in Canada, that the extreme new measures are unnecessary.
But because the RCMP arrested the two accused men in late afternoon on Monday and held a news conference at 3:30 p.m. that day to announce the arrests, with the formal charges laid Tuesday morning in Toronto, opposition MPs did not have knowledge of the dramatic development for most of the first day of debate on Bill S-7 that began at noon Monday.
Despite the coincidental timing of events, coupled with a denial from the office of Government House Leader Peter Van Loan (York Simcoe, Ont.) that he was aware of the pending arrests when he added the terrorism bill last Friday to the Commons agenda for Monday, opposition MPs were reluctant to conclude or even allege that the Conservatives managed the debate schedule in such a way that prevented the arrests from giving opposition MPs more evidence that existing terror laws are sufficient to discover and combat nascent terrorism activities in Canada.
“The thing is with this government you can ascribe all kinds of motivations to them, to their actions. They’ve shown themselves to be so political with everything they do, who knows?” Nova Scotia NDP MP Robert Chisholm (Halifax Dartmouth, N.S.) told The Hill Times on Monday as the vote neared.
“As I said yesterday, this is a bill that we don’t think will deal with the issues as they’ve suggested they will deal with them. We think it infringes on peoples’ civil rights, human rights, and if they were serious about dealing with terrorism, they would put resources back into the RCMP, border security and CSIS,” said Mr. Chisholm, who took part in the second afternoon of debate on the bill on Tuesday.
NDP MP Randall Garrison (Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, B.C.), the party’s public safety critic, said a series of earlier terrorism arrests in Canada had already provided evidence there was no need to beef up existing terrorism law with measures that the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association warned in committee testimony will erode civil liberties and legal rights in Canada.
The provisions allow for secret investigative hearings to compel individuals to provide information they might have about terrorism or terrorism activities and a new measure that would allow security services to prevent Canadian citizens from leaving the country if police have “reasonable” ground to believe they might contribute to or take part in an act of terrorism abroad.
Another provision would allow police and security services to obtain court orders controlling the movement and actions of individuals for up to a year, with no charges, if the police have “reasonable ground” to believe the restrictions would prevent an act of terrorism.
Mr. Garrison insisted Tuesday, as both opposition parties argued earlier in the week, that the government sped up the terrorism bill to benefit politically from the aftermath of the bombing attacks at the Boston Marathon last week that killed three people and injured 176.
The bill strengthens and extends stringent anti-terrorism measures that were passed for a limited term by a previous Liberal government, following the 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the U.S. The original anti-terrorism measures expired in 2007.
The Senate passed the bill last May 31, and reported it to the House of Commons with suggested changes that the government did not adopt.
The government tabled the bill in the Commons on June 5, 2012, but did not begin second reading debate until Oct. 10, sending it to the Commons Public Safety and National Security Committee the same day. The committee reported the bill back to the Commons on Dec. 11, with no amendments, and the government’s final debate of the bill on March 3, with two days of debate on March 3 and April 4 prior to the final stage this week.
Conservative and Liberal votes totalled 183 in favour of the bill Wednesday evening, with 93 NDP MPs voting against the legislation and seven New Democrats absent for the vote.
New Democrat MPs had questioned the government’s last-minute rush, noting the time it had taken the Conservatives to introduce the bill and move it forward through Parliament.
“I think the government was hoping that in a time of heightened emotions people might not have looked so closely at the bill but I don’t think that’s really worked,” Mr. Garrison said.
“I firmly saw this [expediting the bill] as related to Boston, whether they saw it [the arrests in Toronto] as an extra benefit, I don’t know, but it was related to Boston,” he said.
“If we learned anything from the charges in the Via Rail case it’s that we don’t need extra legislative measures to do this, when people are given the resources in law enforcement and security agencies, they can produce the results.”
During the final afternoon of debate over S-7, Conservative MPs showered New Democrats with allegations that the party is “soft” on both crime and terrorism, a tactic the Conservatives used successfully in the past against the Liberals when they were the official opposition.
“The New Democrats do not seem to understand that the number one responsibility of any government is to protect the country's sovereignty and ensure public safety,” said Minister of State for Transport Stephen Fletcher (Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia, Man.).“The New Democrats seem to be soft on terrorism, along with the hug-a-thug mentality.”
Near the end of the first day of House debate over the legislation, RCMP officers held a news conference in Toronto to announce the arrest of 30-year-old Chiheb Esseghaier of Montreal and 35-year-old Raed Jaser of Toronto, both have been residents in Canada for years but do not hold Canadian citizenship.
Mr. Esseghaier told the arraigning judge that the allegations were not based on fact, but he did not have a lawyer representing him, while the lawyer for Mr. Jaser said his client would deny the allegations in court.
RCMP alleged a plot targeting the VIA Rail train service in the Greater Toronto Area, with reports it was related to a track used by Via and Amtrak to carry passengers into and out of the U.S. The RCMP led the investigation team including agents with Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Canada Border Service Agency.
Canadian officials said they worked closely with U.S. officials on the case, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the RCMP hastened the arrests over FBI objections following the bomb attacks in Boston last week.
Other major terrorism arrests in Canada since 2001 include the 2010 arrest of two men accused of taking part in plans to attack Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan with explosives and the 2006 arrest of 18 suspected terrorists in Toronto who planned to attack Parliament and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.). Eleven were subsequently convicted.
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