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Someone Call the Cops on Justin Trudeau's Public Safety Minister Pick

The promotion of former Toronto police chief Bill Blair to the position overseeing Canada’s federal police force and intelligence services signals “concerning priorities” for the Liberals.

by Justin Ling
Nov 21 2019, 10:30am

Photo via The Canadian Press

It’s been a hell of a ride, but Bill Blair’s redemption story is complete.

The former Toronto police chief, pushed out of the job just four years ago, is now Canada’s minister of public safety.

It’s a nearly-unfathomable return to form for Blair, who faced criticism from all sides for his handling of the infamous G20 summit, held in Toronto in June 2010. Reviews found that Toronto Police, under Blair’s leadership, conducted random street checks, detained more than 1,000 protesters for up to 24 hours in make-shift camps, used arbitrary strip searches, amongst other Charter violations. Blair also continued, and defended, the practise of demanding identification from otherwise law-abiding, predominantly non-white, Torontonians as well—carding.

Now, Blair is the man responsible for Canada’s national police force, our border agency, and a pair of freshly-strengthened intelligence and security agencies. He will also be tapped to bring in new gun control laws, as part of a plan to reduce homicides in Canada’s big cities; and will help decide whether to let Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei build part of Canada’s 5G infrastructure.

Blair’s new role was announced at Rideau Hall on Wednesday, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his new cabinet — one that didn’t have quite the same rosy optimism and flowerpower that defined his team unveiled in 2015.

Gone is the role of “minister for democratic institutions.” Instead, a frail Dominic LeBlanc, recovering from treatment for leukemia, will become President of the Queen’s Privy Council. That job will require democratic reform, insofar as it means arm-twisting an independent Senate to pass government bills. It will not involve ensuring that the 2015 election is the last held under the first past the post electoral system.

Mona Fortier, a new, but well-connected, addition to cabinet will now carry the sloganeering title of “minister of middle class prosperity.”

It’s not hard to see lots of politicking going on in these new roles. There’s no Albertans in cabinet, since the province didn’t elect any Liberals, but Peace River, Alberta-born Chrystia Freeland now carries the weighty but largely meaningless title of deputy prime minister. Winnipeg MP Jim Carr, also battling cancer, is “special representative for the Prairies.” The natural resources job, an important one as Alberta continues to stump for more oil infrastructure, went to Newfoundlander Seamus O’Regan.

Quebec made off like bandits, though. They’ll get Pablo Rodriguez as their dedicated representative, even as he also serves as the government leader in the House of Commons. Fellow Montreal MP Melanie Joly will handle languages and economic development. Also hailing from the island is Steven Guilbeault, the new heritage minister; and David Lametti, continuing on as justice minister and attorney general.

All told, it’s a cabinet that establishes that this is a government that cares plenty about marketing but little about optics. Sure, it’s still gender balanced. But there’s little more than a cursory nod to the Prairies, which returned no Liberals to Ottawa. Leaving SNC-Lavalin-friendly Lametti in his role, where he’s likely to sign a plea deal for the embattled Quebec company, is quite the statement. And, of course, there’s top cop Bill Blair.

Blair takes over from Ralph Goodale, Trudeau’s right-hand man who was felled in his re-election efforts in Regina. When Goodale got the job, in 2015, Trudeau was riding on a promise to repeal aspects of the Conservative-era Bill C-51.

Goodale proved himself capable right out of the gate. He introduced broad reforms that simultaneously expanded the roles and powers of the Communications Security Establishment and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the country’s main spy agencies, while also improving their oversight and accountability. Even many ornery civil liberties advocates had to admit that those reforms were, generally, well done.

It seems unlikely that Blair will manage the same kind of balancing act as Goodale.

Blair, as chief of the Toronto Police Service, proved himself keen to go around independent oversight in order to get things done. A 26-chapter gameplan for how to handle the G-20 summit was never even shared with the police services board.

In 2015, even as he lobbied to stay on as chief, the board declined to renew his contract, pushing him out of the job. And, as it happens, freeing him to run for federal office.

Blair won his Scarborough seat that October, but was passed over in Trudeau’s first cabinet. Instead, Blair became Trudeau’s go-to guy on cannabis—first, as parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, then to the health minister. Harsh criminal penalties for anyone caught operating outside the legal system were thought to be the hallmarks of Blair’s work on the file.

Most recently, Trudeau tapped Blair to handle border security and organized crime reduction. In that role, Blair began negotiating with his American counterparts to make it easier to turn away refugees crossing into Canada to make asylum claims.

With his promotion to public safety minister, though, Blair now oversees the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency, and CSIS.

He takes over a national security apparatus that has seen its credibility severely weakened, after the arrest of the RCMP’s top intelligence official on espionage charges. He will have to decide whether to ban Huawei from helping to build its sensitive telecommunications infrastructure. Blair will be responsible for ongoing negotiations around expanding information sharing with American intelligence agencies. He will be tasked with implementing oversight to Canada’s border services. He will have a large role to play in deciding how, or whether, Canadian citizens who travelled to fight for the Islamic State are repatriated and prosecuted. The list goes on.

Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor in international affairs at Carleton and a former intelligence analyst, says it’s a bad sign that the government has opted to put “a cop in charge of cops.”

“Public Safety is a portfolio that combines forest fires and earthquakes with cyber security and espionage,” Carvin told VICE. “It doesn’t make any sense. It remains structurally the same in this government, which suggests there will be no ambitious reforms made in the most complicated international threat environment we have had since the Cold War.”

Putting Blair in that job, Carvin says, is a signal that the government is honing in on domestic policing issues, not international security. “If this is the Liberals signalling that this is where their priorities are, I am deeply concerned.”

After being sworn in to the job, VICE asked Blair how he would go about balancing civil liberties with public safety—and how he would convince the public of that, given his record.

“I would simply point out that, for 39 years, I was responsible for policing in the city of Toronto, and for 10 as the chief of police,” Blair said. “I’ve dedicated the majority of my adult life to keeping people safe.” Blair added that he would ensure “that all of our decisions are taken through the lens of upholding Canadians’ rights and freedoms.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story said Blair will also be overseeing the CSE. He doesn't.

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