OTTAWA — The Conservative government must strengthen review and oversight of security agencies if it plans to beef up spying and police powers, say the federal privacy and information czars.
Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien and information commissioner Suzanne Legault are also urging the Conservatives to avoid trampling civil liberties in trying to ensure the safety of Canadians.
The Harper government is contemplating new laws in response to the recent attacks that killed two soldiers in broad daylight. It has also introduced long-promised changes to strengthen the ability of Canada's spy service to probe terror suspects overseas.
It's understandable that the government would want to consider boosting the powers of law-enforcement and national security agencies to address potential gaps, Therrien said Wednesday at a news conference.
But any new tools should be accompanied by a beefed-up role for the watchdogs who keep an eye on spies and police, he added.
"It's important to ensure that our government institutions have the correct tools to address risks,'' Therrien said.
"But it is equally important that the activities of these agencies be the subject of surveillance and monitoring by independent third parties so that we ensure as a society that these activities are undertaken in a lawful manner.''
Therrien highlighted long-standing recommendations by Justice Dennis O'Connor — who examined the Maher Arar torture affair — to allow national security watchdogs to exchange information and conduct joint investigations.
O'Connor's 2006 report also advocated a co-ordinating committee that would include various security watchdog chairs to ensure seamless handling of complaints and probes.
"These recommendations were made eight years ago,'' Therrien said. "There's no reason why the government can't act on this now.''
Legault, an ombudsman for users of the Access to Information Act, said Canadians need appropriate information to make intelligent decisions about the necessary level of security. But most activities related to security and intelligence are shrouded in secrecy.
"The government actually has a lot of information, but Canadians and parliamentarians usually have limited information,'' she said during the news conference.
"I think we have to seriously review the entire oversight framework around intelligence and police enforcement activities.''
Legault and Therrien joined provincial counterparts from across the country in issuing a joint statement Wednesday recommending "effective oversight'' be built into any new legislation to bolster law-enforcement agencies.
It also advocates an "evidence-based approach'' to considering the need for new measures, an "open and transparent dialogue'' on whether they are necessary, and, if so, discussion about their nature, scope, and impact on rights and freedoms.
"We acknowledge that security is essential to maintaining our democratic rights,'' said the statement. "At the same time, the response to such events must be measured and proportionate, and crafted so as to preserve our democratic values.''
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson indicated this week the threshold for obtaining some information about terrorism suspects is too high.
Therrien reiterated his concerns about existing federal legislation — ostensibly to deal with cyberbullying — that would lower the threshold for police access to some personal data.
The bill contains new powers under which sensitive information would become accessible to authorities based on a "reasonable suspicion'' of wrongdoing, a standard lower than the constitutional default of ``reasonable and probable grounds'' to believe an offence has taken place.
"If there is a lower threshold,'' Therrien said Wednesday, ``there would need to be some fairly strong demonstration that it is required.''
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