Mr. Speaker, I am happy to have the opportunity to rise and make some brief comments about Bill C-6, now before the House. The bill is described as introducing “an act to establish the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and to amend or repeal certain acts”.
On the surface this might appear to be nothing but a pretty straightforward housekeeping bill and in fact one that is overdue, because it basically establishes the legislative authority for what the government has already been doing, generally not a very good practice and not one that is in the proper order of things. Nevertheless, one could say it is positive that we are now dealing with this bit of housekeeping.
I think it is important that we not fall into thinking that this is merely a housekeeping bill. I do not want to exaggerate my concerns. I do not want to go so far as to say that the bill is in fact a wolf in sheep's clothing, but I do want to raise some concerns about the possibility that the bill could create a good many problems. It may solve some problems and there are some reasons for being optimistic about that. But depending on the implementation, on the checks and balances, and on whether the government is prepared to begin paying more attention to the critical importance of human rights and civil liberties in our society and the due process of law, either Bill C-6 will be a positive thing or it will not.
I think that in a way we have to look at this legislation from two points of view. One is around the aspect of emergency preparedness and public safety, which I want to say a little bit about. The other is about the extent to which “public security” matters are really at the heart of what the government intends this bill to be about. It is perhaps difficult in some cases to make a separation between the two.
One of the reasons that I wanted to take the opportunity to speak directly to the public safety and emergency preparedness aspect of the bill is that I want to speak directly from the experience of my riding of Halifax over the last year, when the question of emergency preparedness suddenly became very critical, not just on one occasion but two.
The first, of course, was hurricane Juan, which occurred in mid-September last year. We were subjected to a very serious disaster that called for a Herculean effort from all citizens, all agencies and all levels of government in dealing with its incredible aftermath.
It is not true, as sometimes is suggested, that it was a good thing there was no loss of life given how terrible the massive destruction was, because in fact there was loss of life. An emergency worker ambulance driver was killed in the line of duty by a tree that fell crashed through the roof of his ambulance. There were also some deaths that were indirectly caused although that is a bit more difficult to measure. I am talking about people who were in a state of frail health. A close personal friend of mine, a medical doctor, had been struggling with cancer and was fatally impacted by the fact that, in her very fragile medical state, when severe damage was done to the hospital she was in, service was interrupted and she had to be relocated to another hospital. In the process, she lost her valiant and heroic struggle against cancer.
In general, taking note of these very tragic results of hurricane Juan, the mobilization of the community was truly exemplary. I am not saying that it was perfect. There were tremendous frustrations. The biggest criticism to be made, and I still feel this way, is that communications with the public about what was happening were not perhaps what they might have been. However, the state of preparedness to deal with this emergency and national disaster was really a model of why we have efforts to coordinate government activity.
I was interested to hear the comments of the member from the Bloc last night referring to lessons that were learned from the massive flooding in the Saguenay region. I am not sure if my sequence is correct, but this was followed I think by the ice storm which also created great damage. There probably were lessons learned about improving the communications and coordination that I am sure would have been shared from one province to another, and among the different levels of government.
By and large we saw a very impressive mobilization. There were heroes and incredible stories of voluntary effort that were phenomenal. There were municipal workers who went flat out around the clock without regard to the fact that they were working far beyond the hours that they were duty bound to work.
Then we have the Canadian armed forces. For me it was an extremely valuable education in precisely how the armed forces mobilize in a situation like that. I appreciated the opportunity extended to me by the minister responsible for emergency measures, the then minister of defence, when I was invited to accompany him to do a tour of the disaster areas, both by helicopter and on the ground. I could see the operational side. Mobilizing the armed forces was very impressive, not only those that were on-site in Halifax or throughout Nova Scotia, but bringing in additional personnel from other provinces.
Earlier in the year I introduced a bill which I think was an appropriate one. In fact, it would fall within the mandate of this bill now before the House to provide for the awarding of medals for the Herculean effort put forward by armed forces personnel. It would provide for the awarding of similar medals in the future under similar circumstances.
A question that might arise is, why would we do that for our armed forces personnel, but not suggest the same for municipal workers? There is a small difference that is significant and needs to be taken into account. The municipal workers, who would have been mobilized, worked long hours and were very important participants in restoring security and safety to people's lives. They would have received overtime pay for those extra work hours. There was recognition through appropriate remuneration.
In the instance of the armed forces, I do not know that the public fully takes account that no such thing happens. They are called upon to respond to duty, in some cases do it around the clock continuously without the possibility of any additional financial remuneration. They of course do that at a significant loss of time and ability to play a role in their family life. It is a small way in which we as Canadians can recognize those situations where they go far beyond the call of anything anyone could consider to be reasonable duty.
The provisions in the bill regarding the improvements to coordination and communication are completely supportable and laudable. Cutting down on the possibilities that this kind of coordinated effort may in any way be impeded by the lack of appropriate structures is overdue. I have no reservation about supporting these provisions.
I want to briefly express some concerns about what we have here in terms of both the provisions of the bill and the government's intentions. Of course one cannot measure that and I seek some assurances from the parliamentary secretary who has introduced this bill.
I want to start by citing a prophetic statement. I am not sure who made it, but it is seared forever in my mind. I says that any nation that sacrifices human rights for security will end up with neither. We have had sufficient numbers of alarming situations in this country post 9/11 where there has not been nearly sufficient attention to that very serious threat.
We heard the prophetic words of Afro-American Congresswoman Barbara Lee from California in the aftermath of 9/11, when Bush rushed to create the us and them situation, rushed to declare that every human being was either on Bush's team or on Osama bin Laden's team, and severely polarized the situation which was already extremely dangerous, precarious, and challenging for all nations to respond to.
Those words of Barbara Lee, that in the attempt to defeat terrorism we should not become the enemy we deplore were prophetic at the time. It was very sound advice. She was giving that advice clearly to the Bush administration, but I regret that the Canadian government did not sufficiently heed those warnings. They did not just come from Congresswoman Barbara Lee, although the courage she showed to stand alone and articulate that position was very inspirational for those of us who had a much easier task of trying to create an awareness and a sensitivity on behalf of our own governments.
Being concerned about ensuring public security, we have seen far too many incidents in which there have been imbalances created where human rights and civil liberties have been sidestepped, sideswiped, and in some cases outright trampled upon, in the name of public security. That can take us to an extremely dangerous place as a nation. Unfortunately, we know in considerable agonizing detail that it has brought immense hardship and is continuing to impose incredible hardship on the lives of individual people, and families in some instances, in this country.
It is not some kind of random hardship. It is not random in who is affected. It is very clear that there has been racial profiling. Individuals have been singled out and in many cases mishandled, mistreated and have had their basic human rights and civil liberties trampled upon. When that happens, it is not just damage to the individual, it is damage to the very fibre and fabric of a democratic society that is supposedly rooted in rule of law.
The list is long and shocking. I know there are some who will say that I am exaggerating. Well we cannot exaggerate when we know of instances where there has essentially been a suspension of the presumption of innocence in people facing accusations and harsh treatment. It is not an exaggerated concern to say that people are incarcerated with no charges laid, with no legal process of being brought to trial, and actually in some instances imprisoned for a considerable period of time. That is not acceptable.
We have people, as a result of our appropriate genuine concern about security, who are not benefiting from those very fundamental protections that should exist in a civilized democratic society around due process, transparency, and accountability. In addition, knowing what it is one is being accused of and having the legal counsel and legal process to be in a position to face one's accusers and defend oneself. These are all very serious concerns.
Those cases have a human face. The best known example is what happened to Maher Arar. It is shocking that it occurred because of what appears to have been the passing of information. One could say that the sharing of information is critically important and certainly in this bill there are explicit provisions for removing barriers to the sharing of information. However, the sharing of information can either be a constructive thing and be exactly what is needed to deal with public safety and security or it can be lethal and very damaging if it is not done within the context of the rule of law and appropriate protections for people.
As my House leader, the member for Vancouver East, articulated so well yesterday, we are in support of the principle of the bill. It is hard to imagine why one would not be in support of the principle of the bill, but we are extremely vigilant about what this legislation is really going to be about. We are going to be seeking a great deal of reassurance and more detail in that regard in committee.
I want to end by raising a question and I do not know the answer to this question. I opened one of my newspapers this morning, it might have been reported in many papers, but this was the National Post , and I read an article reporting on Tom Ridge's visit to Ottawa yesterday. The title of the article was “Security will reshape relations”. It was attributed to Mr. Ridge and the subtitle was “Greater integration”. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was stating in Ottawa yesterday that the drive to safeguard North America from global terrorism would reshape Canada-U.S. relations and lead to greater economic integration.
It was not, frankly, until I read that article this morning that it became crystal clear to me that the government's decision to introduce this legislation yesterday may indeed have been directly related to the visit of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. I do not make any accusations about that, but I ask the government to address the concern that is widely shared, that in fact we may be going down the very same road that is shocking the world in terms of the response of the U.S. administration to the issues of public security and post 9/11 responses.
It seems to me that it is too much of a coincidence that the U.S. homeland security secretary was here yesterday on the day that this bill was introduced, which of course was the government's decision and presumably done for a reason. I think it underscores the point that we want to make.
We want to be assured absolutely that the legislation will not put us on a further track to ape, or emulate or follow the truly reprehensible suspension of civil liberties and due process of protection against the abuse of power in the name of security which sacrifices human rights in pursuit of that security. We want to be assured this not just by words from the parliamentary secretary, who is piloting this through Parliament, but in terms of the actual provisions and protections that are built into the bill.