OTTAWA – When the Conservatives suddenly decided to bring anti-terrorism legislation to a vote, they pinned the urgency on current events.
The move to go ahead with the Combating Terrorism Act after it had sat in the House of Commons for months came days after twin explosions at the Boston Marathon killed three and wounded scores more.
Meanwhile, officials continue to probe links between an attack at a gas plant in Algeria last January and a group of men from London, Ont.
And the start of a final two days of debate on the bill happened to coincide with the RCMP’s announcement Monday of two arrests in an alleged attack planned on a Via Rail train.
The time to act is now, said the Conservatives in bringing ahead the bill, which passed Wednesday night in a Commons vote of 183 to 93.
All three recent incidents have raised questions about radicalization and the threat it poses to domestic and international security, yet the government acknowledged Wednesday that the proposed law doesn’t address that.
“Bill S-7 does not directly address the issue of radicalization,” Andrew Gowing, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said in an email.
“It does, however, ensure that law enforcement have the means to anticipate and respond effectively to terrorism, thereby complementing the government’s ongoing efforts to combat radicalization leading to violent extremism.”
Asked whether the government could point to any recent cases the new bill could have addressed had it been in force, Gowing did not directly answer.
Civil-rights advocates say many provisions in the bill are unnecessary and of questionable constitutionality.
Police, while welcoming the new tools, also note that some of the challenges they face in cracking down on terrorism today aren’t covered by the legislation.
So the decision to move forward smacks of political opportunism, not policy imperative, the Opposition suggested.
“A responsible Canadian government would not have kept hitting the snooze button until tragedy struck somewhere else in the world,” said New Democrat MP Dany Morin during the debate.
Despite the sense of urgency attached to the bill by the Conservatives, the current iteration of the law has been working its way through the parliamentary process since February 2012, when it was introduced in the Senate.
Elements of it had been introduced in earlier failed legislation dating to 2007, which itself was linked to older laws enacted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
After the 9/11 attacks, laws were passed to allow police to bring people who might have information about a terrorism offence before a judge for an investigative hearing.
Police were also given the power to arrest people they believed were about to commit an offence in order to stop it.
The measures expired after five years and so haven’t been in play since 2007.
Once the bill receives Royal Assent and then comes into force, the measures will be back for another five years, unless both houses of Parliament pass a resolution to extend them.
It also requires both the attorney general and minister of public safety to report on how often the provisions are used and explain why they need to be extended.
“By re-enacting the investigative hearings and recognizance with conditions provisions for five years, Bill S-7 will help law enforcement, subject to judicial approval, investigate both past and future terrorism offences and to prevent terrorist activity,” Justice spokesman Gowing said.
But the Canadian Civil Liberties Association suggested the measures aren’t necessary in the first place.
“The preventive arrest and investigative hearing laws, in effect from 2001 to 2007, were never once used for their intended purpose, and every major criminal terrorism-related incident in Canada since 2001 has been disrupted and prevented without the need for preventive detention or investigative hearings,” the CCLA said in a statement this week.
Meanwhile, new provisions in the bill include the creation of offences that prohibit people from leaving or attempting to leave Canada for the purpose of committing certain terrorism offences.
Canadian security officials estimated as many as 60 Canadians have left the country in order to do exactly that. But Canada lacks an exit control system that shows when people leave the country, so officials don’t know exactly when.
Earlier this month, the RCMP took the extraordinary step of confirming that two Canadians were involved in the Algeria bombings, but acknowledged they didn’t know how the pair ended up there.
Two years ago, however, the Mounties claimed they’d stopped someone else from leaving.
In 2011, Mohamed Hassan Hersi, 25, was arrested at Toronto’s Pearson airport as he boarded a plane headed for London and Cairo.
He was alleged to be on his way to Somalia to join a terrorist organization, and was charged with attempting to participate in terrorist activity and providing counsel to a person to participate in a terrorist activity.
The case still hasn’t come to trial.
“Each case is very specific, and to use one case to determine whether the preventative application of it would be wide enough for the majority of cases has yet to be determined,” said RCMP Assistant Commissioner James Malizia during his testimony when asked why new measures were required if police could already stop people from leaving.
While the Liberals supported the new bill, the NDP remained opposed.
“If we’re really going to attack terrorism, let’s have that proper balance between the resources we need and the existing laws,” said New Democrat MP Randall Garrison on Wednesday.
“If we learned anything from what happened with the charges in the Via Rail case, it’s that we don’t need extra legislative measures to do this.”