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April 27, 2014

Canada's new gag order bill

The Canadian Charger

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Although a law dictating a lifetime ban on employees working for Members of Parliament, releasing information about the government, is going back for review by the all party committee, which drafted the bill last spring, lifetime gag orders for government employees is nothing new in Canada.

Indeed, lifetime gag orders were part of the original Anti-Terrorism Act, which became law on December 31, 2001. Currently the lifetime gag orders under this act affect about 12,000 people, while it's unknown exactly how many people will be subjected to gag orders as a result of the latest legislation.

However, it is known that the gag order law under review will encompass CSIS's legal service units, the CSE (Canada spy and electronic communication surveillance agencies), and the Privy Council.

Under the current gag order in waiting, employees would be prevented from disclosing (or even confirming the existence of) so-called "special operational information."

This includes confidential intelligence sources, targets of operations, names of spies, military plans, various techniques or technologies, plus encryption and other means of protecting data.

This new law should help the Harper government deflect and obfuscate criticism of CSIS and CSE, after revelations of enormous telecom and online surveillance operations, in which the Harper government gave permission to the U.S. National Security Agency, to listen to the communications of other G20 leaders – including allies - at the G20 Summit in Toronto, in 2008.

While continuing to hector numerous countries in the world about becoming more democratic, and transparent, while respecting the rule of law, it appears that the Harper government's actions are diametrically opposed to its words; a la the ongoing senate scandal.

Meanwhile, the proposed Order would allow the Government of Canada to assure its partners in their “war on terror” that special operational information – no doubt, especially the kind of questionable legality – shared with Canada, will be kept confidential. This notwithstanding that the Harper government hasn't provided any indication that its partners in the “war on terror” have actually complained that its current assurances of confidentiality are inadequate. However, this is not going to stop the Harper government – in accordance with its “tough on crime” stance – from expanding the number of people potentially liable for up to 14 years of jail.

But on the other hand, one can safely assume that U.S. Government officials were not pleased that Canada's approval of its spying on G20 country leaders - including its own allies - leaked into the media. Something need be done to prevent illegal activities such as these from embarrassing Canada's most important ally, because after all these kinds of leaks are damaging to the image both countries, as beacons of democracy, transparency and the rule of law. How are they ever going to get developing countries to understand the need to progress to their standards of decency, when they're getting this kind of troublesome publicity, which could even be characterized as a “gathering mess.”

Meanwhile, Canada lagged behind Britain, Australia and American protections for whistle-blowers, before – not after – the new lifetime gag order came before the House of Parliament.

In the United States – the country which instituted and leads the “war on terror” – there are dozens of state and federal whistleblower protection laws, some dating back three decades.

Britain has a blanket law protecting all employees who expose those who break the rules. About one in five win some sort of redress against reprisals, such as wage loss.

David Hutton, executive director for the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR) said there is a need for protections for those who follow their consciences and expose wrongdoing. While acknowledging that the U.S. and Britain have some protections for whistle-blowers – though not nearly enough – Mr. Hutton said Canada is essentially a wasteland when it comes to offering protection to those who report wrongdoing.

The Canadian system is set up such that whistleblowers have to hire lawyers at their own cost and spend years in court fighting a case; and if they do win, their lawyers will take the lion's share of the proceeds, and the employee will be without a job and faced with a huge barrier in getting one, because potential employers shy away from those who take their employers to court. And somehow or another the word does “leak” out.

The new gag order bill reads in part:

“That information to which I may become privy in the course of my employment relating to the activities and work of my employer is politically sensitive and confidential and I will not divulge such information except as may be required by law.”

Anthony Salloum, head of Unifor Local 232, representing NDP employees said staff - especially those working part-time – are concerned about the clause that requires consent before they can take on other work or even volunteer positions.

Sylvie Therrien, a federal fraud investigator, lost her job after revealing that federal government has fraud quotas in place for Employment Insurance investigators, who consume significant amounts of taxpayers' money, to try to find ways to get people who have to do real jobs for a living, off of EI benefits, which cost taxpayers a small fraction of the money these investigators cost them. But at least it allows the Harper government to tell its “base” that “we're tough on crime.”

Meanwhile, Nycole Turmel, NDP MP and opposition whip is calling for the board of internal economy, which oversees MPs’ office budgets and operations, to end its secret meetings and conduct its affairs in public.

“I would say 95 per cent of the time we could easily discuss the issues that we have in front of us. It would be easier for everybody and the perception that we’re hiding something won’t be there,” Ms. Turmel said.

Canadians will decide for themselves what kind of Canada they want their children and grandchildren to grow up in.

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M. Elmasry

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