Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-231, which was introduced by my colleague, Senator Carignan, who did an exceptional job as opposition leader in the upper house for our party. Mr. Carignan is from the Montreal region, so he is very familiar with what is going on in the media sector in our greater metropolitan area.
I am also glad that the government decided to support this bill, which is so important for our democracy.
Last year, like many Quebeckers, I was shocked to learn that police forces, whose job is to protect us, had a number of journalists under surveillance. Naturally, I have a lot of admiration for this country's police forces and law enforcement agencies, whose members, for the most part, choose to work in policing because they want to keep us safe and protect our families and our rights. For them, it is a matter of principle, honour, and ensuring a healthy democracy.
We need to ensure that our law enforcement officers continue to serve all Canadians, rather than just one branch of a political office, whether it be that of a mayor or MP. We need to avoid the embarrassments we have seen over the past few years, and still recently, in certain regions of Canada.
We are not a communist country like China or Cuba, despite our Prime Minister's willingness to sing the praises of some of their leaders. One thing is certain; Canada is a democratic country. In a country like ours, everyone should ensure maximum freedom of expression so that the rights of all Canadians are protected.
The resources available to the state, especially when it comes to surveillance and wiretapping, are supposed to be used only in situations where they are deemed essential, specifically in order to thwart an attack that is imminent or in the works. The fact that an employee working for a municipal, provincial, or federal government wants to blow the whistle on an embarrassing situation is clearly not a matter of national security that would require police forces to set aside important investigations to sound the alarm. That is what we believe on this side of the House, and of course all parties agree on this.
The most blatant example in Canadian history is that of the Gomery commission. Journalist Daniel Leblanc from The Globe and Mail uncovered a story that caused quite an uproar and ended with the investigation that we are all familiar with today. The whole thing started with an informer known as “Ma Chouette”. We never found out the person's real name because Mr. Leblanc went so far as to go to court to protect his journalistic sources. This helped Canadian society to make significant advances.
It is therefore essential that we be able to protect those people. Senator Carignan, who sponsored this bill, was aware of the importance of striking a balance so as not to create a free-for-all where government secrets would be leaked in violation of the law.
It is important to point out that this bill still allows the courts to authorize the disclosure of information, even if they do so only in rare cases where the public interest in the administration of justice outweighs the public interest in protecting confidentiality. Under clause 39 of the bill, the court must take into account the following three factors: the essential role of the information in the proceeding, freedom of the press, and the impact of disclosure on the journalistic source.
Judges are required to think carefully before issuing wiretap warrants, and obtaining such warrants will not be a mere formality that is automatically rubber-stamped. Judges cannot issue such warrants unless they are absolutely necessary.
The Chamberland commission on the wiretapping of journalists is currently under way in Quebec, and it is causing quite the stir.
This is further proof that the bill must be passed, so that all of these things can change and that journalists are able to conduct the necessary investigations to advance democracy.
That said, as he acknowledged himself before the Chamberland commission this week, the officer responsible for wiretaps in the case of Mr. Lagacé, of La Presse, acknowledged that despite the lack of urgency, he had no trouble obtaining a wiretapping warrant. Had Bill S-231 already been in place at the time, things would have played out entirely differently, and for the better.
I would like to reiterate that freedom of the press is fundamental in a free and democratic society such as ours. The press' role is to question, to investigate and to ensure that governments at all levels respect their commitment to openness and transparency. Incidentally, I would like to digress for a moment by touching on the events, starting last week, that led to the withdrawal of Ms. Meilleur's candidacy this week for the position of Commissioner of Official Languages.
MPs and journalists alike worked on this file. Journalists uncovered the facts and presented them to us. Certain individuals, some under the cover of anonymity, spoke to journalists and expressed reservations about Ms. Meilleur’s appointment. Not only did this spark controversy, but it also prompted us elected representatives to action. Though people would not necessarily have contacted us directly, they were comfortable enough talking to journalists, who then publish the news in a neutral way. Neutrality is very important. We all have our contacts and our networks, that is the nature of politics, but I think that people will still regularly supply information that may move certain matters forward or even allow all the facts to come to light, as the Gomery commission did. Sources often prefer to supply information anonymously to a journalist, as journalists are neutral and not tied to any particular political party. That makes it possible for them to speak freely, which is not always the case.
The government has boasted for a year and a half about being open and transparent. Transparency is not creating a website where people can enter their name. Over time it was revealed that Ms. Meilleur made contributions to the Liberal Party. There were still some dots to connect, however. As more time passed, we became aware of mounting evidence pointing towards the fact that this was indeed a partisan appointment. There was still more digging to do.
The press' role is to question, investigate and ensure that governments at all levels respect their commitment to openness and transparency. Without the press, Canadians may not have become aware of scandals such as the sponsorship scandal, the Prime Minister's wheeling and dealing, cash-for-access fundraisers, or partisan appointments such as that of Ms. Meilleur.
Despite Liberal promises to be open and transparent, Ms. Suzanne Legault, the Information Commissioner, concluded in her report yesterday that government is more secretive than ever.
I am pleased to support this bill, which recognizes the importance of journalists and sets clear safeguards to prevent the government from pushing too far with the powers that Canadians have given it.
I would also like to note, as my colleague from the NDP has just done, that there are also local media venues in our ridings. The local community media can also receive information in a neutral manner. I would like to list them: on radio, there is CIEL FM in Rivère-du-Loup, CHOX FM in La Pocatière, and CIQI FM in Montmagny. For newspapers, there is Le Placoteux, Info Dimanche and Journal L’Oie Blanche. On television there is CIMT and CMATV. I am firmly convinced that all these communications networks allow for better democracy. I support them and I would ask them to continue their good work. We need them, as they are essential to Canadian democracy.