11/24/2014 18:37 EST | Updated 01/24/2015 05:59 EST

Terrorism bill raises civil liberties questions

The government's new anti-terrorism bill is only seven pages long, but opposition MPs found much to be concerned about Monday during the first committee meeting set aside to study C-44.

Neither Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney nor his staff would give a yes or no answer when asked whether government lawyers, who review every government bill tabled in Parliament, were confident the proposal to give Canadian spies more powers complies with the Canadian Constitution.

The bill would protect confidential sources used in national security cases, even keeping the identities from the judge, give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) explicit authority to operate both inside and outside of Canada, and allow CSIS to share information on suspected Canadian terrorists abroad with members of the so-called "Five Eyes" group of countries — namely the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

The bill would also allow Canadian intelligence operatives to ignore the laws of the countries in which they operate as long as they obey Canadian law. Officials weren't able to name any other Five Eyes country that has the same provision.

NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison asked Blaney whether the Department of Justice advised him the bill was constitutional.

"If these laws aren't going to stand up when they get to court, then we're actually wasting time here when we could have done something more effective," Garrison said.

More changes coming

Blaney said the spirit of the law is respected.

"We are sometimes working in an environment [in other countries] where people don't experience the freedom and democracy that is experienced here. That's why this bill is related to Canadian law and that's why ... it is a bill that is fully complying with our constitution," the public safety minister said.

When it comes to concerns about keeping secret the identity of informants, Blaney said that defendants can seek a judge's order declaring that a confidential source's identity must be disclosed to establish the defendant's innocence.

Garrison countered that the measure only applies to the trial, and not to detentions or bail hearings. 

Asked again about the advice from government lawyers, Blaney said protecting Canadians is the government's first priority.

"And that is how this bill has been prepared, with all respect to our Canadian Constitution," he said.

Blaney told MPs the government would return with a similar bill "with issues related to surveillance, [arrest] and detention." 

Garrison also raised concerns about dedicating only two committee meetings to studying the bill, which works out to about four hours. Blaney said he wasn't concerned, because the bill is only seven pages long and that he was more worried about shoring up national security.

The proposed bill would also:

- Allow for some exceptions, including disclosure of informants' identities "if the human source and the [CSIS] director consent to the disclosure of that information."

- Lay out the process by which a judge could order that an exception be made.

- Make it an offence to divulge any information that would lead to the disclosure of the identity of a CSIS employee "who was, is or is likely to become engaged in covert operational activities."