Members of a parliamentary committee set up to scrutinize the Emergencies Act will have to take an oath of secrecy, but will not be given access to highly classified material, says the government’s representative in the Senate.
Sen. Marc Gold also told senators that ministers are receiving hourly police updates about potential threats around the country to assess if the emergency law is still needed.
The Senate began debating Tuesday whether to confirm the government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time in Canadian history over protests and blockades of Canada’s borders by people opposing vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions.
On Monday evening a majority of the House of Commons voted in favour of confirming the act after the NDP backed the minority Liberal government.
The act must also pass through the Senate, which plans to hold extra-long sittings to debate it. If it fails to approve the act, it would be immediately revoked.
If approved, however, a special joint committee of both the House of Commons and the Senate would be established to review the government’s actions under the act on an ongoing basis.
Gold said those on the committee would have to take an oath of secrecy, but would not receive highly classified intelligence briefings.
Sen. Dennis Glen Patterson of the Canadian Senators Group asked whether committee members could be given higher security clearance or even sworn into the Privy Council to allow them to have access to sensitive security intelligence to inform their decisions, including on whether there is a security threat and the act is still required.
But Gold said the rules would not allow members of Parliament to “dip in and out” of higher security clearance or be temporarily sworn in. The information the government was basing its decisions on was in the public domain, but the committee would have the power to ask for further access to information, he said.
In often heated exchanges, Gold faced a barrage of questions from senators, including those querying whether the act was still needed now that the Ottawa protest and blockades of Canada’s borders have ended.
“What emergency exists today other than some secret emergency you can’t tell us about?” asked Sen. Scott Tannas, leader of the Canadian Senators Group.
Tannas expressed concern that the committee would not be set up swiftly enough to allow members from all parties to scrutinize the Act. He asked Gold to commit to explaining every day until the committee convenes why it had not yet been constituted, which he declined to do.
Tannas said it was a “testimony to Canadians even when they are hot under the collar and the professionalism of the police” that no one had been seriously hurt in the protests.
Gold said he believed that “the job is not yet done,” warning that blockades could return and there are signs some protesters are reconvening.
“The calm we now see may be the calm before other events,” he warned.
He said the protests had “metastasized into an explosion of illegal activities.”
Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos questioned provisions in the Emergencies Act allowing banks to freeze protesters’ accounts without a court order. He said a court order is needed even to freeze the bank account of a member of the mafia. The Tory senator asked how people would know if their accounts had been frozen, and why.
Housakos accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of stoking the flames of division and of not speaking directly to protesters but “speaking down” to them and characterizing them as Nazis.
He also criticized the prime minister for labelling Tory MPs who have not condemned the protests as supporting people who wave swastikas.
Some protesters were seen flying swastika and Confederate flags and some organizers have been known to promote racist conspiracy theories online.
Gold staunchly defended the prime minister and said he does not recognize the Tory senator’s characterization of Trudeau’s actions and comments.
He said the Emergencies Act is justified because of the gravity of the protests, adding that everyone could resolve to listen more and listen better.
But some senators accused the government of taking extreme measures.
Sen. Denise Batters, a Conservative senator, accused the prime minister of “massive overreach,” saying that the Emergencies Act was not geographically targeted but had been applied throughout Canada, the second largest land mass in the world.
Questioning powers to freeze bank accounts of those who joined the protest, she asked how a bank would know if a person had stopped participating.
Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan, who chairs the Senate human rights committee, questioned whether invoking the Emergencies Act could set a precedent.
The government’s representative in the second chamber said this question was “a preoccupation of many.” Gold said the Emergencies Act was less far-reaching with more checks and balances, including parliamentary scrutiny, than its predecessor, the War Measures Act.
He said there were many mechanisms in the act that would allow the Commons and Senate to question its provisions. He said he would be proud to see senators using “all the democratic tools in our kit” to hold the government, or any government, to account.
But he said “the government continues to believe the job is not yet done” and a threat remains.
Meanwhile, the office of an NDP MP who spoke in favour of approving the Emergencies Act has been vandalized.
The windows and glass door of Gord Johns’ Parksville, B.C., constituency office were smashed after he spoke in the House of Commons on Monday night. It was not immediately clear the vandalism was due to his endorsement of the act.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has indicated he would be prepared to withdraw support for the act if he felt the emergency powers were no longer needed.
—Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press