Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, has issued a devastating critique of the Conservative government’s anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51. 

At the time the Conservatives unveiled Bill C-51, cabinet ministers told Parliament that the government had “consulted” the Privacy Commissioner. 

They did not say what the Commissioner’s view of the legislation was, but gave the impression he was onside.

Now, we learn that the Conservative ministers were being disingenuous.

In a letter to Conservative MP Daryl Kramp, the Chair of the House Public Safety and National Security Committee, Commissioner Therrien says:

“The scale of information sharing being proposed is unprecedented, the scope of the new powers conferred by the Act is excessive, particularly as these powers affect ordinary Canadians, and the safeguards protecting against unreasonable loss of privacy are seriously deficient.” 

Therrien does not mince his words.

He does not even try to be conciliatory or diplomatic. 

“While the potential to know virtually everything about everyone may well identify some new threats, the loss of privacy is clearly excessive,” he warns the government.

And then, to make sure nobody misses his point, the Commissioner adds: “All Canadians would be caught in this web.”

“All Canadians.”

That includes nice, law-abiding, white, middle-class suburbanites as well as environmental and First Nations activists, youth organizers, and members of religious and ethnic minorities.

Canada has now had its Pastor Martin Niemöller moment, courtesy of Therrien. It’s not just about ‘them,’ the Privacy Commissioner warns. It’s about all of us.

Focus on Part 1 of C-51 — sharing information throughout the government

The Commissioner is, naturally, particularly focused on the information-sharing provisions of the Bill, which have attracted relatively little critical attention.

Indeed, while Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has been harsh in his assessment of the overly broad definition of “threats to national security” in Bill C-51 and the lack of Parliamentary oversight, he has said he agrees with the information-sharing measures.

That is one of the reasons Trudeau gave for voting in favour of Bill C-51.

These information-sharing provisions can be found in Part One of Bill C-51 and are grouped into a distinct piece of sub-legislation called the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act (SCISA).

SCISA makes it possible for all kinds of hitherto confidential information the government holds on Canadians to be shared with the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), the RCMP and other security agencies.

Swept up in this provision are your tax information, your travel data, data on your importations of goods, and virtually any other information any department of government might have about you.

As Therrien puts it in his letter to MP Kramp, the SCISA “would authorize virtually systematic sharing of information, for broad purposes not all clearly related to national security…” 

The Commissioner points out that in addition to the investigation and disruption of “known threats” information will be shared for the purpose of identifying and preventing activities that are “not yet identified.”

Therrien nails home his point, underlining how any Canadian could be the subject of these new information-sharing provisions.

“We accept that the detection and prevention of national security threats are legitimate state objectives,” he says, but then adds that “information-sharing would not be limited to known terrorism suspects; it would include information on everyone, including law-abiding Canadians.”

Highly critical of overly broad definition of ‘undermining security’

Therrien goes beyond the technical information-sharing process in his critique.

He adds his voice to the many who have noted that Bill C-51’s definition of “activities that undermine the security of Canada” is far too broad.

As we have pointed out in this space, the “activities” the Bill enumerates include interference with the “economic of financial stability of Canada” and “interference with critical infrastructure.”

The Commissioner wants this dangerously over-reaching definition to be changed.

He recommends that “the definition of ‘activities undermining the security of Canada’ should be reviewed to ensure that it is not overly broad and includes only real threats to security.”

That is exactly what critics such as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and the Liberals’ Trudeau have been saying.

There is more in Therrien’s letter, much more, including detailed recommendations for a series of changes to the legislation. You can read it all here.

Do not expect the Conservatives to pay too much heed to this well-informed and non-partisan advice, any more than they paid any attention to the views and recommendations of the Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, when reforms to the voting process were on the agenda.  

In fact, in Mayrand’s case, when his advice was at odds with the Conservative government’s intentions, they attacked his personal and professional integrity, in a manner that showed flagrant disregard for the rule of law.

What can we expect them to say about the Privacy Commissioner, in the light of his stern admonitions with regard to Bill C-51?


 Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...