The opposition is demanding to know what steps have been taken to address security concerns over foreign companies operating in Canada's telecommunications industry, in the wake of a CBC News report about a Chinese firm's contracts in Canada.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told the House of Commons Wednesday that concerns raised by Canadian officials have been addressed and Canadians can rely on a safe and secure system.
But the opposition parties said they aren't satisfied with the government's responses and want more "transparency" about the security concerns.
Harper and Toews were asked to respond to a CBC report by Greg Weston on warnings from North American security officials about Huawei Technologies, a giant Chinese firm that has partnerships with Telus, Bell, SaskTel and WIND Mobile.
Toews referred to a memo from his department that he said shows security concerns were addressed, but CBC News has a redacted copy of the memo and its author says only that officials will "further develop options" if any changes to foreign investment rules are made and that those changes "will be accompanied by necessary mitigation measures and safeguards."
"There's an obvious attempt by the Conservatives to offer up a little bit of spin to try and get people off the story," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair told CBC News in an interview. "There's been no real answer on the national security side or the public safety side. We're going to keep calling the government to account on this, we're not going to be spun off of it.
"We're concerned for public safety but we're also concerned for national security," he said. "Why is Canada not being as prudent as our allies?"
Weston reported on Tuesday that the former head of U.S. counter-espionage says the Harper government is putting North American security at risk by allowing Huawei Technologies to participate in major Canadian telecommunications projects.
In an exclusive interview in Washington, Michelle K. Van Cleave said the company's involvement in Canadian telecom networks risks turning the information highway into a freeway for Chinese espionage against both the U.S. and Canada.
Harper was asked by Mulcair in question period why Canada is willing to do business with Huawei Technologies when the United States and Australia have blocked the company.
'Concerns have been addressed'
"The leader of the NDP is speaking of some contractual relationships between some Canadian companies and foreign companies. The particular concerns that he raised, in fact, have been addressed. Those concerns are examined and those concerns have been addressed in our mind," said Harper, "And I would remind the leader of the NDP that we don't take dictates on security from the United States."
The memo that Toews referred to Wednesday was written in 2011 by the Department of Public Safety and obtained under the Access to Information Act. In it, a senior public safety official says, "the security and intelligence community" believes that throwing open the Canadian telecom market to foreign companies "would pose a considerable risk to public safety and national security."
Large sections of the memo were withheld from release.
Toews said in question period that in the same memo the official stated that despite the concerns mentioned, he wanted to stress that the department was "not in opposition to the auction."
The memo was on national security concerns related to a wireless spectrum auction and opening the door to foreign investment in the telecommunications sector.
"In fact, what the official did do is point out certain concerns and then indicate that those concerns had been addressed," Toews told the House of Commons.
The public safety minister said all telecommunications carriers in Canada are subject to Canadian law. "We will continue to ensure that Canadians can rely on a telecommunications infrastructure that is safe and secure," he said.
The memo, however, does not say that concerns had already been addressed. It says that officials from public safety "will further develop options and will work with [Industry Canada officials] to help ensure that any changes to the telecommunications market will be accompanied by necessary mitigation measures and safeguards."
It also says that public safety officials want to ensure that "appropriate measures are established" to protect the sector and it warns that loosening restrictions on the telecommunications industry – without introducing "mitigation measures" – comes with significant risks.
Liberal Leader Bob Rae said Toews shouldn't necessarily be taken at his word.
"I mean the problem right now is we have a complete lack of transparency with respect to the decision and how it could be reviewed. If we had a government that was interested in sharing information, we could have a national security committee look at it," he said.
"I think what we need to have is a process that allows us to see what are the security concerns and how in fact have they been met."
Rae said the facts upon which Toews made his decision about the company and any security risks aren't known.
Huawei declined to be interviewed by the CBC.The company issued a written statement late Tuesday saying, in part, that it ensures "all our stakeholders, including governments, have a clear understanding of the tools we use to protect the integrity of our customers' networks to the highest standards.
"Over the past four years, we've worked openly and transparently in consultation with our customers and government to meet these requirements."
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