Canada still stands alone amongst our allies in lacking proper parliamentary oversight of our security and intelligence services, despite many attempts at reform over the last 35 years.
In the 1970s, the government of Pierre Trudeau set up a Royal Commission of ‘’Inquiry into Certain Activities of the RCMP’’ in order to restore public trust by investigating unlawful activities by the RCMP. A key recommendation of the commission was to create a special oversight committee of parliamentarians, which was subsequently ignored.
The House of Commons is now debating Bill C-22, which would create a parliamentary oversight committee of security-cleared and secrecy-sworn MPs and senators, who would be given substantial, but not complete, access to classified information and a whole-of-government mandate to review security and intelligence operations, policy, legislation and administration. This plan was a staple of both the NDP and Liberal platforms during the election.
The all-party Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security did a review of the government’s legislation, and a majority of its members felt the government’s proposed restrictions on access to information were unnecessarily tight and could undermine the effectiveness of the intelligence oversight committee.
The original draft legislation put forward by the Liberals allowed the government to freely hide information from the oversight committee if it was “injurious to national security.” Members of the Public Safety committee worked together to remove this section from the legislation.
The government did not support the amendments made by the committee and moved that the changes be rolled back. The government also decided to use its majority to shut down debate on this issue in the House.
All of our closest allies, including those with Westminster systems, have adopted legislative oversight of their security services. The committees differ in their mandates, investigatory powers and membership. To ensure independence from the government, most nations allow the committees to elect their own chairs and some give the legislature a role in confirming nominations to the committee. Unfortunately, the amendment to allow elected chairs was not passed despite having unanimous support of the opposition parties.
The most important thing we can do to build Canadians’ trust in our security and intelligence community is create meaningful parliamentary oversight.
Canadians expect a watchdog with teeth, not an oversight committee that has important information held back based on the wishes of the PMO. Without adequate access to information, the committee will not be able to do its job. This work is far too important to do half-heartedly or ineffectively: we will not support creating a committee that simply wastes time and erodes Canadians’ trust.
A committee of select parliamentarians who have passed security clearance, sworn an oath to secrecy, and have waived their parliamentary privilege and immunity should have full oversight into our intelligence and security organizations.
We need to join our allies in creating an empowered parliamentary oversight committee in which Canadians can put their confidence. Unfortunately, Bill C-22 does not provide for this.
Alistair MacGregor is the NDP MP for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford.