Evidence of meeting #44 for Public Safety and National Security in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was terrorist.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • John Davies  Director General, National Security Policy, Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness
  • Michael MacDonald  Director General, National Security Operations Directorate, Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Kevin Sorenson

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome.

This is meeting number 44 of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, Tuesday, June 5, 2012.

Today we are having a briefing on Canada's counter-terrorism strategy.

Appearing in our first hour is the Honourable Vic Toews, Minister of Public Safety and National Security. We want to thank him for coming back today. It seems as though it was just our last meeting when he was here—and it was—to discuss the estimates. Two meetings in a row he has appeared. We very much appreciate that.

He is accompanied by the appropriate officials from the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Mr. Michael MacDonald, director general of the national security operations directorate; and also Mr. John Davies, director general of national security policy.

I remind all members that the minister's timetable allows him to be here for the first hour, and also that the directors general will continue to testify in our second hour.

We want to thank you again. We would prefer basically the same format as what we've had in the past, and we look forward to your comments, Mr. Minister, and then to a round or two of questioning.

June 5th, 2012 / 3:30 p.m.

Provencher
Manitoba

Conservative

Vic Toews Minister of Public Safety

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Members, as you know, I'm always pleased to appear before this committee, and I'm happy to have the opportunity to speak to Building Resilience Against Terrorism: Canada's Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

As you've indicated, I'm joined here by two officials who will have much of the detail, should I not be familiar with certain very technical aspects of any questions that may be put.

Mr. Chair, Canada has been unwavering in its commitment to protect Canadians and to support global efforts to counter terrorism. I've said on many occasions that the most fundamental job of any government is to provide for the safety and the security of its citizens. Canada's counter-terrorism strategy underscores just how fundamental this responsibility is and how seriously our government takes it. I'm proud that this strategy sets out a clear approach for addressing terrorism, with a special focus on building community resilience. It also confirms that our government will take all reasonable measures to address real and persistent threats, and Canadians expect no less.

I imagine that most committee members are aware of the strategy, which was released earlier this year and is available to all Canadians through the Public Safety website. As such, I will only briefly go through the strategy itself and then will take some time to highlight its key areas of focus and the way forward.

The counter-terrorism strategy will help prioritize the government's counter-terrorism efforts and promote an open discussion with Canadians on the threats we face. It also highlights the importance of cooperation with Canada's international partners, all levels of government, security intelligence and law enforcement agencies, industry stakeholders, and special interest groups. In other words, it sets out how the government as a whole is currently working to prevent, detect, deny, and respond to the threat of terrorism.

First and foremost, the strategy focuses on prevention, because preventing terrorist ideologies from taking hold of vulnerable individuals is the best scenario.

The second element is to detect terrorism by identifying terrorists and their supporters and the capabilities and nature of their plans. The timely identification of terrorist threats is critical to preventing terrorist attacks, and that is why we have committed in the Air India inquiry action plan to working with our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies to identify more effective ways to share information.

The third element of the strategy is to deny terrorists the means and opportunities to pursue their illegal activities by mitigating vulnerabilities and intervening in terrorist planning, thereby making Canada and Canadian interests a more difficult target for would-be terrorists. To that end, this government has introduced amendments to the Criminal Code that would assist law enforcement in investigating terrorism offences by reinstating investigative hearings and recognizance with conditions.

To deny terrorists the ability to threaten Canada or our allies, we are also introducing new provisions that would make it a criminal offence to leave Canada or attempt to leave Canada for the purpose of committing a terrorist offence. To complement these measures, we are also responding to the needs of victims of terrorism through legislation that allows them to sue perpetrators and supporters of terrorism.

A final element is to respond to terrorist attacks in a proportionate, rapid, and organized manner to ensure a quick return to ordinary life and to reduce the impact and severity of terrorist activity.

Underpinning these four elements are two important themes: resilience and partnerships. I would like to touch on these two themes in turn, beginning with resilience.

In the context of Canada's counter-terrorism efforts, resilience is an important concept to understand for several reasons. First, it speaks to the power of individuals, communities, and society to reject and challenge the factors that pull thought and action in the direction of violent extremism. Secondly, resilience is key to minimizing the negative psycho-social effects of a terrorist attack. In other words, it is important that society's reaction to an event not exacerbate the crisis. Finally, it speaks to the ability of individuals and communities to draw strength from the principles that bind our society.

In making the concept of resilience a cornerstone of Canada's counter-terrorism strategy, one of our overarching goals is to mitigate the potential polarizing impact that violent extremist ideologies, or indeed terrorist attacks, can have on Canadian society.

The other key theme is that of building and strengthening our partnerships both domestically and internationally. The success of our overall strategy depends on strong partnerships, which is why it calls on local governments, community leaders, academics, and citizens to be part of the national effort.

To this end, we are actively working with our security intelligence agencies and law enforcement partners in the provinces and territories, the private sector, non-government organizations, civil society, and community organizations. The RCMP-led integrated national security enforcement teams based in major cities across Canada are one example of how federal, provincial, and municipal law enforcement partners and security intelligence agencies work in collaboration to investigate criminal threats to our national security.

At the local level, we also continue to reach out to a range of diverse communities through initiatives such as the Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security, led jointly by Public Safety and the Department of Justice. Through this initiative we can engage communities in frank discussions that help to build trust and work towards a common vision for society that is resilient to terrorism in all of its forms. In fact, I will be meeting with community leaders in southern Ontario in just a few days to have a dialogue about a range of national security issues.

Mr. Chair, I think it's important to note that Canada's various counter-terrorism initiatives and activities have existed for some time. What this strategy does for the first time is set out in a coherent and unified format how these activities contribute to the government's strategy for countering terrorism. It brings together all the elements of the current approach in a way that can promote deeper engagement with Canadians. Our goal in sharing information about terrorist threats is not to instill fear in Canadians, but rather to build awareness. We recognize that there is still much to learn about countering and preventing terrorism in the Canadian context. More than ever, it is important for governments to collaborate and share information with experts in other fields, from other nations, and from the private and academic sectors.

To this end, as committee members may know, the Prime Minister and I launched the five-year, $10-million Kanishka project last year to fund Canadian research on all aspects of countering and preventing terrorism. The goal of the project is to create a vibrant network of scholars across the country that will inform more effective policies for countering terrorism.

Research topics for the first round of funding will cover themes such as ideological extremism and violence, perception and emotion, collective dynamics and resilience, and organizational effectiveness. With investments like these, it is inevitable that our collective knowledge will be advanced and that our understanding of how to tackle these issues will evolve. I had the pleasure of announcing the first round of funding, worth $1.1 million, which helped build Canada's knowledge and understanding of this complex issue.

Mr. Chair, let me finish with a few words on implementing the counter-terrorism strategy, especially as it relates to the prevention elements.

Our prevention elements will initially be focused upon the following areas: advancing our understanding of how and why violent extremist ideologies resonate with particular individuals, working to understand what tools can help communities deal with these issues, harnessing existing programming and partnerships to help contribute to prevention objectives, and developing reliable indicators to measure outcomes and evaluate the effectiveness of our programs.

As I said earlier, our government believes we can build a society that is resilient against terrorism in all of its forms by talking to Canadians about the security threats we face as a country and by collaborating with our partners to build knowledge and capacity. The counter-terrorism strategy underscores Canada's commitment to taking all reasonable measures to address terrorism in its many forms.

On that note, Mr. Chair, I would like to conclude by thanking all of you again for your time. I look forward to answering any questions that members of the committee may have.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Kevin Sorenson

Thank you very much, Mr. Minister.

We will now move into our first round of questioning.

We will move to Ms. Hoeppner, please, for seven minutes.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Portage—Lisgar, MB

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Once again I want to thank you, Minister, for being here. It was just at our last meeting that you were here as well, and we really appreciate your making yourself available, as well as your officials who are here today.

I want to begin, Minister, by talking about the strategy as a whole in terms of it being something new. I think you would agree there's no previous government that has taken this approach to countering terrorism. Could you comment on why our government chose to have a very direct and focused strategy as opposed to maybe other governments not recognizing that there was a need? Maybe it's with the change in our world.

Could you comment on the fact that our government has taken this approach? I would say it's a relatively new approach for any government.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Vic Toews Provencher, MB

Thank you, Ms. Hoeppner. I appreciate the question.

Our understanding of terrorism, of course, has evolved in the last ten or so years, especially in the aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers. That certainly opened up a whole range of possibilities that terrorism experts and security agencies simply did not think about. We had to respond as a country very quickly. I know that the prior government did pass some legislation, legislation that we have reintroduced after it sunsetted, because we felt it was necessary to keep that legislation. There were various programs that the former government brought in.

What we've tried to do is to prioritize the government's counter-terrorism efforts and promote an open discussion with Canadians on the type of threats we face. What we're trying to do is to engage all elements of society and bring them together in a coordinated fashion. We've learned from such inquiries as the Air India inquiry about the importance, for example, of sharing information. While that inquiry spoke primarily of domestic sharing of information, it did touch on the international sharing of information. That has become a very important aspect, especially when you're dealing with terrorism. You cannot simply keep information inside Canada and share it with domestic law enforcement and security agencies and believe that you're protecting people effectively. You have to share the information that you have, in the same way that we count on our allies providing us with information to better protect Canadians.

That, in fact, leads to issues and concerns that we need to address—for example, the issue of the privacy rules that govern the use of information. For instance, when we share information with another country, how do we ensure that the information is being used appropriately and will not be used for improper interrogation techniques? What kind of limits can we build into the agreements that we have in our international partnerships?

So this is really a coordination of all of the efforts that have already been done, as well as an improvement of these efforts gained as a result of the knowledge we have acquired along the way. The Kanishka project is fundamental to providing an academic base to our understanding of terrorism, which police agencies, security agencies, judges, and lawyers can all utilize in moving forward on this very difficult issue.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Candice Bergen Portage—Lisgar, MB

Thank you.

I know you talked about the four pillars of the strategy: prevent, detect, deny, and respond.

I had the privilege in February of meeting with a cross-cultural round table, with individuals who represent a variety of communities and groups. What they bring to this discussion is so important—their frankness, a connection with the community, and their grassroots level knowledge of what's going on in each of their communities.

I know you've met with them and are going to meet with them again. Can you talk a little bit about the prevention part of the strategy in meeting with community leaders and really having the knowledge of what's going on in communities? Things are changing so quickly and the radicalization of people, which leads to violence, can happen so quickly.

Can you talk about engaging community groups, like in the cross-cultural round table?

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Vic Toews Provencher, MB

Thank you. Indeed I can.

I think you've hit upon a very important issue, and that is the issue of community involvement when it comes to dealing with the threat of terrorism. I can frankly state that there is no way that we will be successful against terrorist groups unless we engage the communities from which these individuals may, in fact, come, or from which they are receiving some comfort or aid. We need to engage these communities in a productive discussion and include them in the actions that we are taking.

This is an approach that is used right around the world in effectively dealing with terrorist individuals and preventing terrorists from appearing in your midst. I think one of the most disconcerting developments for Canadians is to actually see homegrown terrorism, not simply extremists but terrorist individuals coming out of communities that have had a home in Canada for a long time. Canadians are also disconcerted that Canadian-born individuals would involve themselves in radical politics that lead to violence.

Many of the communities recognize this. By cooperating with the authorities, these communities have been very supportive of our government's efforts in trying to stop terrorist activities. I know that in one particular case a very large community approached the government and indicated that they were concerned about the involvement of their young men in jihad and wanted help from the Canadian government in how to address this. So the cross-cultural round table and, indeed, direct discussions with community organizations are fundamental to stopping the development of homegrown terrorism, and also to thwarting terrorists from overseas who would use these communities, to which they may have an ethnic or cultural affinity, as a base for terrorist activities.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Kevin Sorenson

Thank you, Ms. Hoeppner.

We'll now move to Mr. Garrison.

Mr. Garrison, you have seven minutes.

3:45 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and thank you to the minister for coming back. I welcome him back. I trust we won't be seeing him every week, due to his schedule, but he has been very kind to us with his time in the last two weeks.

As the official opposition, I think you'll see us welcoming the strategy as a concept and the principles on which it is based. We may have some differences about how the strategy is articulated and carried out, but we do think it's a good idea to turn our attention to a comprehensive strategy like this. We would also argue that it's important to have a strategy that is both effective and adequately funded, and we may have some questions about that as we go along today.

I was glad to hear you call for partnerships and for reaching out to communities. I do think there's one thing that is missing from the strategy, and that's the importance of maintaining public confidence in the activities of the government in this area. I'm going to ask a little bit about that in just a second.

I can't resist saying one thing, and that is that this strategy contrasts with a lot of the other strategies put forward in the justice area by focusing on prevention and prosecution. In that respect, it seems a lot closer to what we on the opposition side have been arguing for in some of the other areas of justice, instead of focusing on heavy penalties at the other end. I couldn't resist saying that this looks more like a strategy with emphasis that we might have given it.

So I want to start with principles, and one in particular. Your strategy says principles matter, and notes the following: They affirm Canada’s democratic values. They provide a clear articulation of how Canada conducts its work. They explain to others around the world what Canada stands for....

The strategy then goes on to list the six fundamental principles, and the third of those is adherence to rule of law. So today I want to ask the minister about his directive from last December to CSIS, allowing the use of information derived from torture. In the report of the UN Committee on Torture released on June 1, the respected international experts from that committee expressed what they called serious concern about this directive violating article 15 of the convention against torture, to which Canada is a signatory.

So I would ask the minister how he squares his directive on torture with the third principle of his anti-terrorism strategy, which is adherence to rule of law.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Vic Toews Provencher, MB

Thank you for those comments.

I appreciate that at least we're working on the basis of the same principles. It's not unusual that we would be working on the basis of the same principles. These principles are well recognized around the world as being the principles upon which you mount an effective anti-terrorism strategy.

In respect of the use of information that may have been obtained from questionable sources by the Canadian government, and by CSIS in particular, there are various levels of how that information is used. I can indicate that while the government certainly condemns the use of torture—we do not endorse torture in any way, shape, or form—when our agencies receive information that may indicate that Canadian lives are at stake, it would be negligent of me not to utilize that information or for the agency not to utilize that information.

It's very difficult to sit in a chair in an office in Ottawa and try to examine where information comes from and how it may have been obtained. If it impacts upon the security of Canadians, that information has to be used.

I'm not aware of any government that would say, “We've come across a situation that indicates that hundreds of our citizens may be killed as a result of the information we've received. There are questions about the source of it, but because of the source, we are not going to use the information and, therefore, we will let hundreds of our citizens perish”. I don't believe that there's a responsible government in the world that would say that they would not use that information. I, for one, will use all information that comes to our attention that, in fact, indicates that Canadian lives are at risk.

3:50 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

With respect, Mr. Minister, there are, of course, indications that information that derives from torture is quite often unreliable. You could, in fact, if you rely on that information, make as large an error as if you ignored that information.

I want to go back to the question of adherence to the rule of law. In the strategy and in its appendix on the legal framework, there's no mention of Canada's international obligations anywhere in the strategy or in that framework. In terms of adherence to rule of law, would you include adherence to our international conventions under international law?

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Vic Toews Provencher, MB

We will certainly respect the rule of law and will respect human rights. Those are fundamental to our country and to our counter-terrorism strategies. We will certainly take those into account whenever we do something. It's very important that we do that.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

I find it curious that the international legal obligations aren't included in that framework. You've not mentioned them in your response to me just now.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

Vic Toews Provencher, MB

The rule of law has many different aspects. There are aspects of the rule of law that are local, domestic, and international. Those are all weighed by security officials when they carry out their activities.

Mr. Garrison, if you're suggesting for one moment that if I knew that a UN convention had been breached, but I had information that suggested that Canadian lives were at stake, I would sit and do nothing with that information, you're mistaken. I will act every time in the protection of Canadian lives—every time.

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Randall Garrison Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Thank you very much.