McLellan hints at concession in terrorism bill
Monday, October 29, 2001
OTTAWA - Anne McLellan, under pressure from critics who say her proposed anti-terrorism bill restricts the public's right to know, signalled Monday she is prepared to tinker with the controversial provision.
Speaking before a Senate committee on the proposed legislation, the justice minister said she will consider allowing the Federal Court of Canada to review complaints from people who feel they have been unjustly denied government information.
Her hint at a concession comes after advocates of access to information condemned the bill as an affront to the rights of Canadians. Among the complainants is the federal information watchdog, John Reid, who has warned that the bill could cripple the federal access to information law.
The bill, as it now stands, would allow the government to issue a certificate exempting records, or even an entire department, from the Access to Information Act for reasons of security or international relations.
Reid, who has said the bill will give the government an "unfettered, unreviewable right to cloak information in secrecy," has said that Canada appears to be the only country tightening information following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Liberal Senator Sheila Finestone and Tory Senator Gerald Beaudoin joined the chorus of critics to denounce the crackdown on information. "There is an impression that you are going beyond the pale," warned Finestone.
McLellan replied that "one option"is that she might let the Federal Court have final say on the access provision by giving it the power to review each case individually.
The justice minister appeared to stand firm against a plea from some senators to include an automatic expiry date for some of the bill's most radical measures to guard against misuse in the future.
"The threat of terrorism will not disappear," McLellan said, repeating the assertions of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who also expressed reluctance to include an expiry date because the government would be left with a legislative hole.
On Monday, Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal became the latest member of Parliament to call for a so-called "sunset clause" on portions of the bill because he fears the legislation could be used to target ethnic communities in the name of protecting the Canadian public.
Civil libertarians and lawyers have been particularly critical of a segment of the bill that allows police to carry out "preventive arrests" in which they can detain people suspected of planning terrorist activities and force them to appear before a judge for questioning.
McLellan also told the committee that she does not consider her bill to be "emergency legislation" and she wants to take the time to strike the right balance between individual rights and public security.
"This bill is not about keeping up with our neighbours," she warned.