THE BLOG

The Trouble With Canada's Publicly Funded Government Watchdogs

01/17/2014 05:35 EST | Updated 03/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Many are expressing outrage now that the public has become aware that Chuck Strahl is acting as a lobbyist for Enbridge, the company hoping to build a controversial oil pipeline across B.C. The problem is that Strahl is also chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which is basically the only watchdog over the domestic spies at CSIS.

Regardless of your position on oil pipelines, surely all of us can agree that publicly funded government watchdogs should not be employed by those connected to the agencies they are overseeing. In this case there's a clear conflict of interest since CSIS has been asked to aid the oil industry in monitoring environmentalists.

As PostMedia's Stephen Maher notes, "Last year, the National Energy Board called in CSIS and the RCMP to investigate possible security threats from opponents of the Enbridge pipeline on dubious grounds. It's hard to ask those pipeline opponents, who may have been sinned against by their government, to trust Strahl's organization to look into whether their rights have been violated."

It gets worse

To make matters worse, the CBC has now reported that most of the SIRC watchdog committee members have ties to the oil industry and Harper. Notable civil liberties lawyer Clayton Ruby has suggested a modest reform where watchdogs do not take positions outside their role and have full employment in their positions. "At the very least, all of them should be banned from lobbying," Ruby says.

This all comes against the backdrop of shocking revelations from Edward Snowden about mass surveillance of innocent citizens, and Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley's deeply worrying statement that CSIS deliberately misled him when applying for a warrant to spy on Canadians. It's clearly time for a review of all spying activities and oversight mechanisms for CSIS, RCMP, and ultra-secretive spy agency CSEC. That's why OpenMedia.ca has joined with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to launch a lawsuit against CSEC's spying on law-abiding Canadians.

As Canada's largest and broadest pro-privacy coalition and tens of thousands of Canadians have stated: "More than ever, Canadians need strong, genuinely transparent, and properly enforced safeguards to secure privacy rights. We call on Government to put in place effective legal measures to protect the privacy of every resident of Canada against intrusion by government entities."

In the end the secretive, expensive, and out-of-control Canadian spying apparatus must be fully reined in.

Feels familiar doesn't it?

For those of us who have been active in the Internet freedom movement this situation feels very familiar to our telecom woes. The reason we are now having to dig a way out of a system of Big Telecom price-gouging is because the government and regulators were listening to industry lobbyists rather than Canadians. That appears to also be the case with government surveillance now.

We saw this clearly with the government's online spying bill C-30, but I think many were hopeful they had seen the light when they made a public commitment to never again try to impose warrantless spying on Canadians. The government has now flip flopped and Peter MacKay is now trying to use our concern for children to push many of these NSA-style spying provisions through. It's wrong and sad to see this. Clearly the government is listening to lobbyists (this time those in the security/resource extraction sector) and not citizens.

Whether it's telecom price-gouging, copyright censorship, online spying, or a range of other issues; these controversies reveal a systematic democratic deficit in Canada and beyond.

In this era of participation, after years of open collaboration and free expression online, citizens believe they have a right to participate in decisions that affect their daily lives -- we have a right to meaningful, open-ended participation in our economy and our democracy. What we're seeing today is that ethos and deepening culture bump against old, top-down business and government bureaucracies intent on maintaining their control.

Credit where credit is due

We've seen in Canada that our government under the leadership of Industry Minister James Moore, and the CRTC led by Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais, are beginning to adapt to this new reality of public participation. Moore resisted Big Telecom's misleading PR and legal offensive last year, and has begun to usher in new rules and government enforcement to support our access to independent Canadian telecom choice. The CRTC's Blais has done the same with the wireless code of conduct, roaming, and has even tried to open up a consultation process about the future of TV.

None of this is enough to Canadian families feeling the pinch of price-gouging in these difficult economic times -- but we're moving in the right direction in terms of public policy, if not yet effect. If the government builds on these efforts and doesn't submit to lazy short term fixes we'll get somewhere in the next year.

If one part of the government can begin to learn to open up to the will of citizens and our active participation in decision-making, there is hope that other parts of the government can learn this lesson as well.

Our job

The government didn't open its ears on telecom on its own. It took Canada's largest-ever online campaign and sustained, widespread, solutions-based engagement to make it happen. We'll need that to continue, and we'll need to bring that energy to privacy, free expression online, and other issues of the day.

In short we'll need to show there are costs to not acting in our interests, and benefits to listening -- we'll need to show there are votes at stake.

At OpenMedia.ca we'll be working to build as large of a community as possible around these issues, and we'll be sure to connect with these voters around election time to let them know where each of the parties stand. Together we represent a growing political force.

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