Friday, December 16, 2011

40 years ago: Canada's Parliament debates a national identity card

And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
Revelation 13:16-17

I didn't know that the subject of a national identity card in Canada went back 40 years, until I discovered the following op-ed piece by Arthur Blakely in the Montreal Gazette, October 15, 1971, p. 7. For those who don't know, or are too young to remember, the Quebec crisis referred to in the column involved terrorists who were members of the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ), who favoured independence from Canada for the province of Quebec. On October 5, 1970, James Cross, British Trade Commissioner to Canada, was kidnapped from his Montreal home by FLQ terrorists. Five days later, the FLQ struck again, kidnapping Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte. Mr. Laporte's dead body was found stuffed into the trunk of a car a week later. The Canadian government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, which resulted in troops in the streets of Montreal and the arrests of hundreds of people known to favour Quebec independence. Mr. Cross was freed unharmed on December 3, 1970.

Question of ID cards stalls on trial run in Commons

Ottawa--A proposal that all Canadians be required to carry identification cards has had a trial run in the House of Commons.

It didn't encourage optimism that the project once favored by Quebec's Justice Minister Jerome Choquette would have the slightest chance of securing parliamentary approval, even in a free vote.

For the record, the sponsor of the motion is Fernand-E. Leblanc, Liberal member for Laurier.

Choquette behind it
Some have suspected Choquette of being the real sponsor.

But Leblanc points out that he placed the motion on the Commons order paper in October of last year, before the Quebec minister of justice had expressed himself as being in favor of the idea.

He introduced it, of course, as a personal reaction to the tragic events then unfolding in the Front de Liberation du Quebec crisis.

Under parliamentary rules, so little time is set aside for the debating of the legislative projects of the individual members of Parliament, that it was not until last week that the Leblanc motion was debated for the first time, and then only for an hour.

In his introductory speech, Leblanc drew attention to the fact that the strong public interest in, and support for, the identity card idea didn't begin with the Quebec crisis.

In 1962, the Montreal municipal election featured a referendum on the mandatory ID card, and some 75 per cent of the Montreal voters endorsed the idea. So too, Leblanc noted, had several Quebec governments, Mayor Drapeau, and a 1967 conference of Quebec judges.

The motion calling on the federal government to "consider the advisability of requiring Canadian citizens and immigrants to carry an identification card" didn't come to a vote.

It is now unlikely, in fact, that it will reach a vote during what remains of this session of Parliament.

But even during the single hour of discussion, it was evident that the proposal has few supporters in the Commons.

Problems arose
Leblanc, naturally enough, supported his own motion.

Some measure of his difficulties became apparent when his fellow-liberal, E.B. Osler (Winnipeg South Centre) rose to second his motion.

"I am glad to second this motion," he said.

"I think it is a motion that should be brought forward, discussed, examined from every angle with very long tongs, then dropped into a furnace and burned."

Seconders of this kind are a luxury which few sponsors of a motion feel that they can afford.

Gordon Aiken (PC--Parry Sound-Muskoka) and Stanley Knowles (NDP--Winnipeg North Centre), speaking for their respective parties, were more thoughtful in their opposition to the Leblanc motion, but opposed nonetheless.

There was only one other participant in the brief debate, Albert Bechard (L--Bonaventure-Iles de la Madeleine), who took a friendlier view of the proposition.

A little better
If Bechard wasn't, perhaps, quite as enthusiastic an advocate of the compulsory ID card as its sponsor, he was certainly much more receptive to the idea than its hostile seconder.

Bechard summed up his views this way:

"...I find certain advantages in the use of an identification card issued by a governmental agency. I do not think it should be mandatory and I would object to a measure making it mandatory for Canadian citizens to carry one or to produce it on request.

"I recognize that such a system raises problems and can lead to abuses, but I think the problems can be solved and the abuses eliminated."

Bechard's willingness to accept a non-mandatory system of ID cards attracted attention because he had been, for a long period, parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister John Turner.

But as far as can be ascertained, he was speaking on this occasion as an ordinary member of Parliament.

He didn't specify that he had been given the authority to speak for the government. And without that authority, his statements carry no more weight than those of any other Liberal MP.

In any event, he took a more uncritical view of the ID card than have such federal Liberal spokesmen as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Justice Minister Turner in the past.

While the federal government has never rejected the idea out of hand, it has questioned the desirability of the compulsory ID card, noting the political perils of any such big-brother-is-watching innovation.

Trudeau has also questioned the capacity of any government except the federal government to introduce such a system. Compulsory ID cards would be national, or nothing.

Bad timing
In all probability, a government-sponsored bill creating compulsory ID cards would have passed easily enough, had it been introduced and pushed through while the Quebec crisis was at its height.

But even the one-hour debate last week suggested that this motion sponsored by a Liberal backbencher and coming up for debate a year after the crisis, faces certain defeat even in the unlikely possibility that it reaches a vote this fall.

The text of the full debate on Mr. Leblanc's motion can be found in House of Commons Debates, October 8, 1971, pp. 8672-8678. His motion was placed on the order paper on October 27, 1970, just over a week after Pierre Laporte had been murdered.

40 years later, there is no federal law in Canada requiring a national identity card, but the social insurance number, introduced in 1964 only for the ostensible purpose of facilitating payment of unemployment insurance and pension benefits, is required on an amazingly large number of forms that Canadians fill out. Because of concerns about identity theft--a term that wasn't part of the popular vocabulary until the last 10-15 years--photo identification is required for many credit card transactions, although that usually takes the form of a driver's license issued by a provincial government. Until at least 2000, if my name was on the voter's list, I could vote in federal or provincial elections just by showing up at the poll and giving my name. Now I have to provide proof of my identity: one piece of photo ID, or two pieces of ID without a photo, both of which have my name, and at least one of which contains my address.

I agree with Mr. Blakely when he says that Mr. Leblanc's bill would probably have passed if it had been introduced a year earlier, in the midst of the FLQ crisis--just as, in 2001, the PATRIOT Act was passed by the United States Congress and signed into law in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Perhaps it was in the providence of God that a bill calling for a national identity card didn't come up for debate in Canada until the immediate crisis had passed, and the need for such a measure seemed a lot less urgent. If Mr. Leblanc's bill were to be introduced in 2011 or 2012, it would probably pass both houses of Parliament--and I suspect that it would be introduced and be most enthusiastically supported by the "Conservative" government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Time will tell if we ever see such a law in Canada.

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