Government denies link between RCMP arrests and House terrorism debate

Spokesman says no connection between Bill S-7 debate and arrests in alleged train attack plot
Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Peter Van Loan responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday April 30, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The timing was, to say the least, a stroke of luck for the Conservatives—and, according to government officials, nothing more.

On the very day when the RCMP was dominating national news by announcing that it had arrested two men in an alleged al-Qaida-linked plot against VIA Rail, the Conservatives had hastily scheduled a House debate on anti-terrorism legislation.

It’s called the Combating Terrorism Act, or Bill S-7, and would bring back a raft of anti-terrorism measures, first brought in as temporary powers by the Liberal government after the 9/11 attacks, which lapsed in 2007.

If passed, the law would reinstate controversial “investigative hearings” and “preventive arrests” in terrorism cases. As well, it would create new offences, making it illegal, for instance, for individuals to leave or try to leave Canada to engage in terrorism. The NDP oppose the bill, while the Liberals support it.

When Government House Leader Peter Van Loan announced last Friday that he was scheduling the Bill S-7 debate for today in the House, the unexpected timing was widely seen as tactical.

Debating the terrorism act meant delaying the vote on a Liberal motion that would give MPs from all parties the right to speak before question period as they please, without their statements being vetted by the leadership of their party. This issue has split the Tory caucus.

As well, some observers thought the Tories were angled for a way to keep alive Prime Minister Harper’s criticism of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s comment in a CBC interview, when asked about the Boston bombings, about seeking to understand the “root causes” of terrorism.

But the RCMP’s big Monday announcement suggested an even more intriguing possible reason the Conservatives might have wanted to highlight their tough-on-terror stance today in particular.

Asked about the timing, however, a government spokesman was categorical in denying any link to the RCMP’s plans. “No, when he announced the debate [Van Loan] had no knowledge of today’s events,” said Fraser Malcolm, Van Loan’s communications director.

Asked if, without knowing exactly what the RCMP had in store, the government had scheduled the debate based on a more general understanding that something important related to a terrorism investigation was to be announced, Malcolm answered in an email with a flat, “No.”