The Liberal Party of Canada clarified its platform on Tuesday saying that they don't intend to give the Communication Security Establishment (CSE) any new powers to surveil Canadians.
In the Liberals' platform, released Monday, the party committed to "limit Communications Security Establishment's powers by requiring a warrant to engage in the surveillance of Canadians."
VICE News originally reported that meant the Liberals intended to give CSE new powers, since the agency is currently prohibited from "directing" surveillance at Canadians for domestic purposes. If CSE were to be allowed to obtain a warrant to run surveillance on Canadians, it would constitute a new legal power. But the party insisted that is not their intention.
Asked several times on Monday during a special town hall in Toronto hosted by VICE Canada to clarify his stance, Trudeau emphasized that CSE would be subjected to oversight.
"We have to recognize that there are new threats in this world that we have to have the tools to [deal with]," said Trudeau, who is leading in some polls. "Now how we engage with judges to get appropriate warrants to make sure we are doing what we need to keep Canadians safe, while respecting their rights, that's the challenge of any government in the 21st century to get right. And I don't think that it's unreasonable to say no, we're going to be very serious about both protecting people's security and safety while defending their rights at the same time."
But a statement from Liberal Party spokesperson Cameron Ahmad sent to VICE News on Tuesday morning indicates that the party was referring to an existing CSE authority and that — despite the language in the platform — surveilling Canadians is not part of the plan.
"In some cases, it only takes a ministerial order to approve the collection of Canadians' information," reads the statement. "Our position is clear: we would limit CSE's powers by forcing the defence minister to obtain a warrant from a judge, shifting to a much stronger standard of oversight, accountability, and responsibility." It adds: "Liberals have long been calling for robust oversight of our security agencies. We are not proposing to expand the authority of CSE."
Under the National Defence Act, the Minister of National Defence currently has the power to issue an authorization for CSE to collect and store Canadians' personal communications, so long as "the interception will be directed at foreign entities located outside Canada." That generally means that the signals intelligence agency can pick up Canadians' phone conversations and emails only if it directly relates to the investigation, and if the Canadian is not the target of the investigation.
In a lawsuit filed by the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Government of Canada clarified that the minister can only use that power "to authorize CSE to engage in an activity or class of activities that risks incidentally intercepting private communications [of Canadians.]"
According to the Liberal Party, their intention was not to create a new authorization that allows them to surveil Canadians, but instead to replace the ministerial authorization with a court order — meaning a judge would need to sign-off on any operation where Canadians' communications, conceivably, could be swept up.
The Liberals included this change in legislation proposed previously by Liberal MP Joyce Murray.
VICE Canada's head of content, Patrick McGuire, called on Trudeau during Monday's town hall to explain his stance on CSE, and repeatedly asked him why he wanted to give CSE a new power to surveil — a premise Trudeau did not dispute.
Trudeau, however, focused his answer on the party's plan to implement oversight. "One of the things that we put at the top of our list of new changes and new powers is actual proper oversight," Trudeau replied.
The Liberal Party came under fire on the intelligence file since it voted to support Bill C-51, the governing Conservatives' controversial anti-terrorism legislation that expands the power for CSE's sister agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to collect and share information, and to 'disrupt' threats. The bill would likely also expand the power of CSE to cooperate with Canada's domestic spy agency and the NSA to do surveil around the world.
Earlier this year, VICE News reported on government documents that revealed how CSE and Canada's domestic spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) work closely together.
Trudeau told the audience the Liberals would narrow some powers and tighten some definitions, without being specific. According to the platform, the Liberals would "repeal the problematic elements of Bill-C-51" and bring in new legislation that "better balances" civil liberties. It would also "narrow overly broad definitions" that exist in the legislation, specifically the phrase "terrorist propaganda."
But Monday night, Trudeau said "I don't want to play politics with this, and I've said that a number of times," referring to C-51, and accused the other two parties of doing just that.
Other topics VICE Canada discussed with Trudeau included clean water water access for First Nations, missing and murdered indigenous women, marijuana policy, and healthcare for transgender people.
Earlier in the day on Monday, two Ontario First Nations that have been without access to clean drinking water for two decades made major announcements: Shoal Lake 40, said they would take the issue to the United Nations in February, and Neskantaga held a press conference to declare that the issue of water access should be more of an election issue than the niqab debate.
When asked about the issue, Trudeau promised to make it "a top priority" and vowed for the first time to end boil water advisories on First Nations reserves within five years.
"This has gone on for far too long," he said.
When asked about marijuana policies, Trudeau repeated his promise to legalize it and "clean up a totally broken system" and that, for most Canadians, "the only time they ever run into a criminal is when they try to buy weed."
Lastly, Trudeau was asked whether he, if elected prime minister, would be more accessible to the media than Stephen Harper.
Trudeau answered by saying "it would be nice to have a government that actually trusts its citizens." He then said openness leads to a more engaged citizenry, and changed the subject to the issue of young people having a lower propensity to vote.
Many young people "don't feel voting is a powerful way of making a difference," he said, adding that even if you are not casting a ballot, "you are still voting."
"Stephen Harper doesn't want you to vote," he concluded.
Correction: An earlier version of this story, based on the Liberal platform, read that the party planned on giving CSE new powers. The story has been updated with comments from the Liberal Party on their policy.
All photos by Anthony Tuccitto