Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak in the debate on Bill C-17, which is before the House.
It is always appropriate and essential to put any debate in the House into context. We know that this bill is one of the legislative measures proposed by the government in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington.
We are also aware that in the hours, days, weeks and months following this tragic event, in which more than 4,000 innocent people lost their lives, one of the elements that became clear once the dust had settled—no pun intended—was the need for any proposed antiterrorist legislation to maintain a balance between public safety—that is, protecting the public— and individual freedoms.
In fact, when the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it was an attack not only on the United States and the West, but on a democratic way of life, an open way of life, where the exchange of ideas is possible in institutions such as the one where we sit today.
If Quebec and Canada, or the West in general, enjoy democracy and the rule of law, it is because the very foundation of our societies is individual freedoms. Any time that a government or, speaking generally, a state, wants to circumscribe or limit these individual freedoms, we must pay attention. In fact, wanting too much to limit individual freedoms, wanting too much to trample on individual freedoms justifies—after the fact—those who would attack this way of life. That is why we must pay attention.
Moreover, it is essential to be very clear. Thus, I will say from the start that the Bloc Quebecois is against this bill. From the first time this bill was presented—and it has had various numbers during the process—we have spoken out against some of its provisions, but they are still found in the bill currently known as Bill C-17.
It is not for lack of effort, nor lack of will, nor lack of reasoned arguments that we say that this bill is not what we want, because, from the start, we have said so. We have had a few victories, that is, the population at large, thanks to the Bloc, has had a few victories. Unfortunately, the government did not want to listen to all the arguments the Bloc has presented in the most constructive way possible.
We tried to alleviate various problems related to this legislation by tabling numerous amendments in committee. Unfortunately, our amendments were defeated by the Liberal majority. I want to share with the House the general tenor of our amendments, because it must be understood that the Bloc made an effort to be constructive and critical, while making an effort to ensure that this legislation does not destroy the balance between public security and individual freedom, which I mentioned in the beginning.
With regard to interim orders, Bill C-17 authorizes various ministers to issue such orders without first ensuring that they comply with the charter or the enabling legislation.
We tried to re-establish this preliminary check so that, before an interim order has effect, it is subject to the charter test, but the government voted this down.
With regard to the powers of the RCMP and CSIS, this legislation includes provisions that confer sweeping powers on the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service with regard to passenger information compiled by the airlines.
In good faith, we tried to amend the bill to limit the powers to retain or use information collected as a result. We wanted to prohibit this information from being used to execute a warrant of arrest.
We also wanted to ensure that the information collected would be destroyed within 24 hours after the plane, carrying the passengers on whom information had been collected, had landed, except if such information was reasonably necessary for transportation security purposes or an investigation related to national security. In this legislation, the time period within which such information must be destroyed remains seven days.
Finally, we also tried to institute an mechanism to ensure that the Privacy Commissioner would receive a copy of the reasons justifying why some information had been retained; this was also voted down.
We also tried to make several changes, namely to the sections concerning the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the biological and toxin weapons convention implementation act, and the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) Act by suggesting amendments or by voting against certain clauses. Unfortunately, despite our efforts and good faith, despite all the energy we invested, the government did not listen, and that is too bad.
However, all our time and energy, arguments found and made, were, at times—but not often enough—welcomed by the government, especially with respect to military security zones. Eliminating military security zones from Bill C-17 represents a major victory for the general public and all those who phoned us, or sent email and letters expressing how worried they were about these provisions. We are proud to say that this victory was gained by the work of the Bloc Quebecois.
As for the declaration of special zones, this measure strikes us as far more reasonable than before. However, I can assure you we will be keeping a close eye on developments, and will remain extremely vigilant in order to speak out against any potential abuse.
The Bloc Quebecois will also do everything in its power to ensure that no military security zone is created in Quebec without the express consent of Quebec's national government.
The bill still contains provisions that allow various ministers to make interim orders. Minor changes were made but there is still no prior test for compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the enabling legislation by the Clerk of the Privy Council.
The absence of a prior charter test, and anything that has to do with interim orders, is at the heart of our opposition to this bill and is one of the main reasons the Bloc opposes Bill C-17 with all the vigour we are known for.
Let me now turn to the issue of privacy. As members know, we have the fundamental right in our society to do everything possible to prevent “Big Brother” from becoming a reality. In western democratic societies, a citizen has the right to ensure that his or her privacy is not being invaded by the government. Bill C-17 raises some concerns about our right to privacy which is--I say it again because it is important--a fundamental right in our justice system.
This government bill allows two individuals, namely the Commissioner of the RCMP and the Director of CSIS, to obtain information on passengers directly from airline companies and operators of seat reservation systems.
This information may be requested if there is an imminent threat to transportation safety or security. As regards the scope of the bill for CSIS, such information may also be requested for investigations relating to threats to Canada's security. Bill C-55, the predecessor of the bill now before the House, provided that information could be required to identify individuals for whom a warrant had been issued.
Generally speaking, the information gathered by the RCMP and CSIS is destroyed within seven days of being obtained or received, as I mentioned earlier, unless this information is reasonably necessary to maintain transportation safety, or to investigate a threat to Canada's security.
As I said before, the privacy commissioner is an officer of Parliament and as such does not report to the government, but rather to the whole House. He serves the people, not the government.
On May 6 of last year, the privacy commissioner issued a letter in which he voiced his concerns about Bill C-55 with regard to the gathering of information by the RCMP and CSIS. I will say again that the privacy commissioner is a neutral and objective observer who has the responsibility to warn us about any threat to privacy, including following the introduction of a bill.
When such an objective and independent officer as the privacy commissioner—and the same goes for the Auditor General—tells us something, it is the duty of parliamentarians, and especially of the government, to listen to what this officer has to say and to take that into account.
The privacy commissioner expressed reservations about two sets of provisions, namely those that permit the RCMP to use the personal information of all air travellers for the purpose of seeking out individuals who are subject to a warrant for any offence punishable by imprisonment for five years or more, and those that permit the RCMP and CSIS to retain the personal information of passengers for such purposes as searching for suspicious travel patterns. One can see these are indeed very broad powers.
Concerning the first point I mentioned, there was a problem with several provisions, including the definition of “warrant”, the provision allowing the RCMP to collect information in order to find people for whom a warrant has been issued, and the provision allowing the RCMP to disclose information on people under a warrant of arrest.
The Privacy Commissioner suggested that these provisions be eliminated. Our understanding is that the government tried to tighten up these problematic provisions, but was unsuccessful. It could not do it, and this comes as no surprise.
Even if the RCMP is no longer allowed to collect information in order to find a person under a warrant, it can still disclose to a peace officer the information that has been collected under Bill C-17, if it has reason to believe thatthe information would assist in the executionof a warrant.
As a matter of fact, the RCMP itself decides when transportation security is threatened, and it can then ask an air carrier for information on passengers. There is nothing to control the use of this provision. Members would agree that this is tantamount to giving the RCMP a free hand. And once the RCMP has this information, nothing prevents it from keeping the information if it gives the reasons for doing so.
In Bill C-17, the government has tightened up the definition of “warrant”. In the previous version, it could be a warrant issued in Canada in respectof the arrest of a person for the commissionof an offence that may be punishableunder any Act of Parliament by imprisonmentfor a term of five years or more. The definition now provides that the offence in question will be specified by regulations.
About the second point I mentioned earlier, the Privacy Commissioner had important reservations concerning the retention of the information.
First, the seven day period during which the RCMP and CSIS may keep the information is excessive; a 48 hour period would be sufficient. The fact that the RCMP and CSIS may keep this information indefinitely for security purposes is of concern. I hope that members will agree with me that all this should be controlled. Neither of the two amendments suggested by the Privacy Commissioner, this officer who is independent from the government, was retained.
Consequently, on November 1, 2002, the Privacy Commissioner issued a news release concerning Bill C-17, in which he mentioned that the amendments made to the bill were minor. Thus, he felt:
The provision in question, section 4.82 of both bills, would give the RCMP and CSIS unrestricted access to the personal information held by airlines about all Canadian air travellers on domestic as well as international flights.
He went on to say:
—my concern is that the RCMP would also be expressly empowered to use this information to seek out persons wanted on warrants for Criminal Code offences that have nothing to do with terrorism, transportation security or national security—
In Canada, it is well established that we are not required to identify ourselves to police unless we are being arrested or we are carrying out a licensed activity such as driving. The right to anonymity with regard to the state is a crucial privacy right. Since we are required to identify ourselves to airlines as a condition of air travel and since section 4.82 would give the RCMP unrestricted access to the passenger information obtained by airlines, this would set the extraordinarily privacy-invasive precedent of effectively requiring compulsory self-identification to the police.
We are not the ones who are saying this, it is the Privacy Commissioner, a representative of Parliament who is independent from the government. Let us listen to him.
Finally, the commissioner stated that the amendments proposed are an insult to Canadians' intelligence.
The changes that have been made in this provision in the new bill do nothing to address the fundamental issues of principle that are at stake.
The Government now proposes to have regulations limiting the Criminal Code offence warrants for which the RCMP will be searching. But this does nothing to address the fundamental point of principle that the police have no business using this extraordinary access to personal information to search for people wanted on warrants for any offences unrelated to terrorism.
As well, in the new bill the Government has removed the “dentification of persons for whom a warrant has been issued” as a “purpose” for accessing passenger information under the legislation. But this is meaningless--indeed disingenuous--since the RCMP would remain empowered to match this information against a database of persons wanted on warrants and to use such matches to bring about arrests. It insults the intelligence of Canadians to suggest, as the Government does in its press release accompanying the bill, that the RCMP may “incidentally” come upon individuals wanted on Criminal Code warrants--if the police are to match names of passengers against a database of individuals wanted on Criminal Code warrants, there can be nothing “incidental” about finding them.
The Privacy Commissioner ended his comments by launching an appeal to us in Parliament:
It is now up to Parliament to explain to these people that privacy is a fundamental human right of Canadians that must be respected, rather than treated with the apparent indifference that the Government is showing.
The Bloc Quebecois is acting on the appeal by the Privacy Commissioner, that independent officer of Parliament, independent of the government. He appealed to us as parliamentarians, saying, “You parliamentarians have a fundamental duty to protect the fundamental right of Quebeckers and Canadians to privacy. This government, with Bill C-17, is trying to limit that freedom, and you have a duty to oppose it”, and that is what we are doing.