The Commons: The government's tortured answers on torture - Macleans.ca

The Commons: The government’s tortured answers on torture

Imagine a riddle wrapped in an episode of ’24’

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The Scene. In an obvious attempt to find common ground with his Conservative counterparts, Jack Harris appealed to the ideals of the free market.

“As long as there is a market for information derived from torture,” he posited, “torture will exist.”

Mr. Harris’ concern this day was the government’s quiet decision to allow for the use of information potentially obtained through torture. This after publicly renouncing the suggestion that it was operating under any such policy.

“Why,” the NDP critic wondered, “is the government getting Canada into the torture business?”

It was the duty here of Vic Toews, he of the December 2010 directive, to stand and carefully read from the blue piece of paper he held in front of him. “Mr. Speaker, Canada does not condone torture and does not engage in torture,” he explained. “CSIS and its employees are bound by Canadian law. Our government expects CSIS and security agencies to make the protection of life and property the overriding priority.”

So the Harper government does not condone torture. But it does allow the use of information gleaned from torture. At least so long as the information relates to a threat to “life” or “property.”

This perhaps begs various questions. (For instance, how much information does CSIS receive that doesn’t relate to “the protection of life and property?” Doesn’t almost everything CSIS investigates have to do with the security of “life and property?” And how is information received from known or suspected torturers screened to ensure only information about threats to “life and property” is acted upon?) But first things first, Mr. Harris wanted to know how this apparent change in policy had come about.

“Mr. Speaker, the Conservative government is showing utter contempt for the Supreme Court of Canada and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Let us not forget that in 2009 the Conservative public safety minister said, ‘this government does not condone the use of torture in any way.’ He also said, ‘If there’s any indication, any evidence that torture may have been used, that information is discounted,’ ” Mr. Harris recounted. “Can the minister please tell us what has changed? Why the sudden tacit endorsement of the use of torture as a matter of policy?”

Mr. Toews, seated three spots down from his aforementioned predecessor (Peter Van Loan), stood here and, appearing to deviate from his script, attempted to square the present with the past. “Mr. Speaker, information obtained by torture is always discounted,” he told the House. “However, the problem is whether one can safely ignore the information if Canadian lives and property are at stake.”

This was less an answer than a philosophical riddle within a semantic maze. Wrapped in an episode of 24.

The obvious follow-up would’ve been to ask how Mr. Toews defines “discount.” Or how precisely he proposes to navigate this “problem.” But Mr. Harris’ turns were done and so here Bob Rae stood and ventured how the Public Safety Minister might clear up matters.

“Will the minister table before the House exactly the nature and the wording of the directive that he has issued to CSIS employees?” the interim Liberal leader asked. “And will he explain how it is that the directive which he is putting forward is in any way compatible with Canada’s obligations under international law and the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada? It is critical that those two points be clearly made, to the minister who just gave the answer.”

The government frontbench decided that it would be better if Jason Kenney, today’s pretend prime minister, took this one. The Liberal corner cried out mockingly when he, not Mr. Toews, stood.

Mr. Kenney repeated the government’s points and then attempted his own explanation. “The minister of course clarified what I would hope the leader of the opposition and the third party would agree with that, in situations where a serious risk to public safety exists and where lives may be at stake, CSIS should make the protection of life and property its overriding priority,” he claimed, stumbling a bit as he went. “Of course we oppose the use of torture but we believe that Canada’s security agencies should prioritize the protection of life.”

And yet, however much the government believes this, it apparently didn’t do so proudly until this afternoon.

The Stats. Pensions, employment and trans fats, four questions each. CSIS, government spending and aboriginal affairs, three questions each. Abortion, patronage, military procurement and search-and-rescue, two questions each. Syria, firearms, federalism, affordable housing, public transit, agriculture, emergency aid, Saudi Arabia, immigration and crime, one question each.

Jason Kenney, seven answers. Leona Aglukkaq and Peter MacKay, four answers each. Vic Toews, Rob Nicholson, John Duncan and Jim Flaherty, three answers each. Christian Paradis, Bernard Valcourt and Julian Fantino, two answers each. Keith Ashfield, James Moore, Denis Lebel, Pierre Lemieux, Diane Finley and Diane Ablonczy, one answer each.