Bill C-51: Meaningless demands for oversight

2015.03.02.VancouverNoBillC-15-004crRenewal Update (April 10) – In the context of the debate on Bill C-51 demands have been raised by various political parties and officials for more oversight over national security agencies. What is absent from the discussion and renders these demands meaningless is the fact that these agencies were never established by the people or for their protection, but are the product of a ruling class to ensure its own security and are wielded in its service nationally and internationally.


The Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which has some limited ability to investigate the Canadian Security Intelligece Service (CSIS)’s past practices, is not an oversight body and cannot curtail any of its activities. Like other forms of oversight and review which are based on excluding the people from decision-making power, SIRC’s primary function is to provide what is called accountability, but all of it depends on whose interests determine the outcome. The very fact that the head of the SIRC is appointed by the Prime Minister and that the likes of a disreputable character such as Arthur Porter* could be put in charge, in control of the country’s security files, tells the entire story of the kind of body SIRC is. At a basic level, oversight refers to a mechanism to ensure that a state organization does not operate above or outside of the law, including a constitutional framework setting out the rights of citizens and residents. In contrast, a review organization examines the activities of said organization after the fact and reports on possible violations of the law. In both cases in Canada, the constitutional framework is one in which rights are said to have “reasonable limits” determined by criteria which defend the interests of the ruling class.

Forms of oversight advocated in the debates on the government’s new anti-terrorism legislation include:

  • Parliamentary oversight: A committee of the House of Commons tasked with paying attention to what CSIS is doing, accepting complaints and making recommendations. This type of body exists in the U.S., U.K. and various other countries and is advocated by the New Democratic Party.
  • An independent oversight committee: A body that could also include parliamentarians, but is not answerable to parliament, and with similar functions to the above. This type of mechanism was proposed by the Liberal Party as part of their support for Bill C-51.
  • A national security review co-ordinating committee: A body similar to the SIRC that would monitor the activities of CSIS and other government agencies including how they share information, field complaints and inform ministers about problems of accountability and rights violations. (This type of oversight was proposed by several former Prime Ministers and the O’Connor inquiry into the rendition and torture of Maher Arar).

The demands for oversight and review are made without the important consideration of whose committees they are and what is their aim.

Both oversight and review have an important role in the function of any society. To review is to sum up and correct. But what correction is required? Without the people being in charge of the oversight and review or controlling the process is any way, demands to put more of these apparatuses in place or to strengthen them are meaningless. As far as establishing parliamentary oversight goes, it is already clear that the Parliament itself no longer functions to enact legislation which serves a public authority, which was itself an instrument of class rule to ensure that the assets of the society were put in the service of the capitalist class. Today, even this stands in the way of monopoly right and is being torn asunder.

The working class and its allies, those forces standing apart from this ruling class in society, find themselves in the sights of these security agencies over which they exercise no control.

A meaningful demand of the people is for something they do not have – that is, decision-making power, which comes along with the responsibility to protect their interests. Who are those threatening the people’s interest? It is those who have usurped power by force, who have at their disposal the security legislation and spy agencies such as the RCMP and CSIS and review mechanisms which have no clout.

*Arthur Porter was appointed as Chair of SIRC and member of the Privy Council by Prime Minister Harper on September 3, 2008. Porter resigned in December, 2011 after media revealed corruption in the form of questionable business deals and foreign connections, including to arms dealers and heads of state. A warrant for his arrest on fraud charges was issued on February 27, 2013 in connection to his overseeing a $1.3 billion Montreal hospital construction and maintenance contract.

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