BUSINESS
06/03/2014 12:59 EDT

Daniel Therrien, Privacy Commissioner Nominee, Advised RCMP, CSIS: Report

CP

The Harper government’s nominee to be Canada’s privacy commissioner offered legal advice to Canada’s law enforcement and spy agencies in a previous job, the Toronto Star reported Tuesday, handing more ammunition to privacy experts who say he is not qualified for the job and faces potential conflicts of interest.

A Commons committee approved Daniel Therrien's appointment to the role Tuesday, over Liberal and NDP objections. Speaking before the committee, Daniel Therrien strived to paint a picture of himself as someone who can be trusted to hold the government to account on privacy issues.

"I never shied away from" telling cabinet ministers if the law they’re proposing is illegal, Therrien told committee members.

In a move likely designed to burnish his credibility as an independent voice, Therrien suggested that the government’s controversial anti-cyberbullying bill should be split in two, with the more controversial elements expanding police powers hived off into their own legislation.

That is a recommendation that many experts, including the Canadian Bar Association, have been pushing for. But Justice Minister Peter MacKay rejected the option last week.

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The Toronto Star reported Tuesday that, as deputy attorney general, Therrien gave legal advice to the RCMP, CSIS, Public Safety Canada and the Department of National Defence -- departments he will now have to challenge on privacy issues.

Some 30 privacy experts have signed a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper declaring Therrien to be unqualified for the job.

Former privacy commissioner George Radwanski described the nomination as “putting a fox in charge of chicken security at the henhouse.”

Canada.com reported that the Harper government ignored its own selection committee’s preferred pick — Lisa Campbell of the Competition Bureau — in order to nominate Therrien.

The government announced Therrien as the pick last week, with critics instantly seizing on the fact that, as a government lawyer, he negotiated information-sharing agreements with the U.S. that previous privacy commissioners criticized.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has been critical of the pick from the start. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau initially came out in favour of Therrien, but Liberal members of the parliamentary committee reportedly objected to the nomination.

The controversial nomination comes as the government works to pass two items of legislation that critics say attacks Canadians' privacy rights. The "Digital Privacy Act" is meant to protect Canadians when shopping online, but critics say it would allow even non-governmental entities to access your internet data.

And critics say the government’s anti-cyberbullying legislation, Bill C-13, would undermine Canadians’ privacy rights by granting immunity to telecoms for handing over data without a warrant.

The bill would allow authorities to “create detailed profiles of Canadians based on who they talk to and what they say and do online,” civil rights group OpenMedia said.

It’s possible that Therrien’s comments on Bill C-13 will be the only ones parliamentarians hear from a privacy commissioner — appointed or not.

Michael Geist, a prominent in expert in law and technology, noted recently that, as a result of the changeover in privacy commissioners and the government’s quick timeline to push through the bill, members of Parliament will likely hear from no privacy commissioners on the matter.

“Given that lawful access has been the subject of more than a decade of debate, the likelihood that the bill will pass through the committee stage without hearing from a single privacy commissioner is shocking,” Geist wrote.

He noted that prominent civil liberties groups such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic may also not be heard from in committee.