Eight Steps the Liberal Government Must Take to Protect and Promote Civil Liberties

Tim McSorley
6 min readNov 14, 2019


For the past decade, anti-terrorism laws have eroded our civil liberties & human rights. The new government must act. Image: Sally T. Buck

During the recent federal elections, there was very little discussion of national security and anti-terrorism laws, and none of it related to its impact on human rights and civil liberties.

The Liberals proposed a new Director of Terrorism Prosecutions, despite it not being clear why such a position is necessary, and the Conservatives (among other things) promised draconian new laws that would criminalize the simple act of traveling to areas deemed “terrorism hot spots.” The NDP spoke out about xenophobia and racism, which go hand in hand with many of Canada’s worst national security practices, but did not offer many concrete proposals regarding the impact of national security laws. The Bloc Québécois, for its part, was completely silent.

The Green Party took the most explicit stances on important issues such as mass surveillance and spying on protesters in its platform, but said little on the campaign trail.

Despite this dearth of discussion of national security and human rights during the campaign, and in spite of what the Liberal government will argue is a sparkling record on protecting civil liberties, there is an urgent need for action on several fronts, including:

  • Growing state surveillance;
  • Ongoing complicity in torture;
  • Secret evidence undermining the right to a fair trial and due process;
  • The continued use of the secret and rights-violating No Fly List;
  • The refusal to reform Canada’s flawed Extradition Act; and
  • Countering racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and all other forms of hate.

Today our coalition, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), released an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, copied to all party leaders, outlining where the government must take action.


Currently, security agencies engage in both mass surveillance, as well as targeted surveillance of people in Canada, including protesters opposed to pipelines or in favour of Indigenous rights (for example, RCMP’s project SITKA, CSIS’ surveillance of environmental organizations). Ending these practices is necessary to protect freedom of expression, assembly and association, the right to privacy, and help political debate and discourse flourish.


Canada continues to be complicit in torture in multiple ways. New rules on the use and sharing of information tied to torture still include troubling exceptions; Canada continues to allow individuals to face deportation when there is a likely risk of torture; and has failed to provide full redress to Canadians who have suffered torture. This could be addressed by, among other actions, putting a halt to all deportations to torture, including that of Mohamed Harkat; reaching a settlement with torture victim Abousfian Abdelrazik; and enshrining in law a complete ban on the use of information obtained through torture, or the sharing of information which could lead to torture.

Due process and right to a fair trial:

Tools meant to combat terrorism often come at the expense of the liberties we mean to protect, and undermine the system of justice in which people in Canada place their faith. These problematic tools include security certificates, the terrorist entities list and the Secure Air Travel Act (Canada’s No Fly List). All of these laws create exceptions to allow information that would not normally be accepted as evidence to be used, in secret, which severely limits the ability of individuals to mount a proper defense. This undermines their rights and can place their very safety at risk. Canada must move towards a more open, procedurally fair system that protects due process and allows those accused to effectively defend themselves. To do so, programs like those listed above should be abolished in favour of applying criminal code provisions that preserve the rights of the accused.

Extradition & Dr. Hassan Diab:

Canada’s Extradition Act is in dire need of reform, as demonstrated in the case of Dr. Hassan Diab, among others. Dr. Diab deserves answers and accountability regarding his wrongful extradition from Canada to France and for spending three years in near solitary confinement, without trial or even charges. All of this was based on evidence that even the extradition judge found weak and confusing. People in Canada must be certain they will not be wrongly sent to languish abroad in the name of the war on terror. It is urgent that you initiate a public inquiry to provide Dr. Diab the justice he deserves, and take action to reform Canada’s extradition laws.

Oversight & review:

This past summer, the government established important new review and oversight bodies for Canada’s national security agencies: the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) and the Intelligence Commissioner (IC). It will be crucial that the government gives these bodies the resources and support they require to carry out their work. The government must also carefully consider the qualifications of future appointees, including the importance of ensuring a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives in those who are monitoring the work of Canada’s most secretive agencies. Of particular importance is bringing on members with a demonstrated expertise in human rights protection. While we support these new agencies, an important opportunity was unfortunately missed to build on the lessons learned from previous review bodies, particularly the Security and Intelligence Review Committee. This includes ensuring greater transparency in the review process and its results and recommendations, allowing for binding recommendations, and providing resources in the form of coverage of legal fees, as well as redress to those who bring complaints. While some of these changes can be initiated by the members of the NSIRA, others will need to be made by amending the law.

Bill C-59: Threat reduction, immunity and cyber attacks

We also remain deeply concerned by and opposed to several aspects of the NSA, 2017, including CSIS’ ongoing threat reduction powers, immunity for CSIS agents who break the law; new powers of collection and retention of “publicly available information,” as well as so-called “unselected information” (essentially amounting to mass surveillance); and new active cyber powers for the Communications Security Establishment. We will be monitoring these closely and continue to advocate that these powers be limited and, in some instances, repealed.

Repatriating Canadians detained abroad:

Finally, more than three dozen Canadians — including nearly two dozen children — face grave danger in north eastern Syria where they are either in prison or being held in detention camps. This includes nearly two dozen children. Immediate action is needed. All of these individuals face grave dangers to their lives, let alone to their fundamental rights to safety and liberty. The small minority accused of involvement in heinous, criminal activity still deserve to be judged and sentenced according to the norms and values that Canada claims to uphold. And those who have not engaged in criminal activity merit the support of their government in protecting their lives and well-being. Canada must act immediately to repatriate these Canadians, just as several other countries are doing, before it is too late.

Fighting against xenophobia, Islamophobia & hate to create a better world:

It is of utmost importance that, through all this, the Liberal government takes meaningful action against Islamophobia, xenophobia, hate, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, unemployment, poverty and other societal ills. These issues must be addressed in order to prevent divisiveness, violence, social isolation and desperation, and to create a better society for everyone in Canada.

Criminal punishment is not always a deterrent to criminal activity, and prevention as designed by security agencies can easily be misused in racist ways, or against those who speak out against injustices. Improving societal conditions would be much more effective in preventing violence.

When the government talks about safety and security, it has almost always been in terms of granting more powers to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. With this coming minority parliament, all parties have the opportunity — and an obligation — to work together to change this approach by prioritizing the defense and promotion of human rights, civil liberties, equality and social justice.



Tim McSorley

Writer, editor, researcher. Transplanted Montrealer in Ottawa. National Coordinator at International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group — iclmg.ca