How casually we take civil rights. A Commons committee is examining the government's plan to fix an unconstitutional law that allows it to lock up non-citizens indefinitely without charge. But committee members won't let lawyers for the six men detained under this law appear before them because –given a tight February deadline set by the Supreme Court, plus the six weeks of Christmas holidays that MPs allow themselves – there just isn't enough time.
"We break in mid-December and don't come back until the end of January," explained Liberal MP and committee vice-chair Roy Cullen. "We could sit in January, but I'll be in New Zealand."
Don't be too hard on Cullen. He at least returned my phone call. Conservative MP Gerry Breitkreuz, the committee chair, was too busy, saying only (through an aide) that the agenda was set "by all party-agreement." Liberal MP Sue Barnes routed me to fellow Liberal Ujjal Dosanjh, who did call back. New Democrat Penny Priddy, another vice-chair, was also happy to talk
At issue are the controversial security certificate provisions of the immigration act. These allow the government to lock up and eventually deport non-citizens on the basis of secret evidence that neither the detainees nor their lawyers can see. Currently, six Muslims are being held for alleged links to terrorism – five under various degrees of house arrest and one in prison.
None has been charged with any crime. All say that if they are deported to their homelands they face torture or death.
On Feb. 23, the Supreme Court ruled that parts of the law were unconstitutional and gave the government a year to fix it.
Bill C-3 was the government's answer.
It proposes to let security-cleared special advocates hear secret evidence and argue detainees' cases in closed hearings. But, at the same time, it would severely limit the ability of these advocates to gather evidence that might counter the government's allegations.
In short, it is a bill larded with pitfalls.
Yet the committee's approach has been to focus on speed alone.
Bill C-3 went to committee Nov. 21.The next day, without notifying the public, MPs quietly decided on a list of 22 witnesses. When two major human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, applied to be heard on Nov. 23, they were told they were too late.
Even more curious was the committee's decision not to hear from the six detainees.
Toronto lawyer Paul Copeland, who represents two of the six, said he applied before the witness list was closed off yet still didn't make the cut.
"I was told they had a lot of people to hear from," he said.
Well, not that many. In its two days of hearings last week, the committee heard from 19 witnesses, including Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day and five of his bureaucrats.
On Tuesday, it is slated to hear from just three more. And that will be that.
Dosanjh said he would like to hear more witnesses over Christmas but will be on vacation. "I haven't had a holiday since 2004," he said. A few minutes later he called back to say he now plans to make a formal motion on Tuesday asking the Supreme Court to extend its deadline by two months.
New Democrat Priddy said she's willing to cut her Christmas holidays short.
"I don't want to. Nobody wants to. But this is important.
"If we were talking about the colour we were painting a new bridge, it wouldn't matter. But what we are really talking about here is people trying to get on with their lives."
Not an encouraging picture, is it?