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Brent H. Cameron: What a ‘special rapporteur’ might mean in the Canadian context

Commentary

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his latest response to the ongoing situation related to allegations of PRC-supported influence being exerted in our elections: the appointment (within “weeks“) of an “eminent Canadian” to serve as a “special rapporteur”. This has generated its own debate—namely, what is a special rapporteur, exactly, and what would they do?

The problem is that we have never had one—at least not one mandated by Ottawa for domestic concerns. We usually use Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in these instances, which, like them or not, are easily recognizable and tested vehicles of investigation and institutional review.

This is not to say that Canada has never had a special rapporteur. Stephen Toope served as one from 2002 and Bernard Duhaime from 2014 to 2021. But those roles were with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, affiliated with the UN Human Rights Council.

In fact, the whole concept of a “special rapporteur” is a United Nations creation and is employed exclusively in the area of human rights. Considered to be independent experts, their role is defined by the special procedure provisions held by the UN Human Rights Council. Those named serve a three-year mandate. At the moment, there are 45 thematic mandates and 14 that are country-specific.

At present, we have no clear idea what Prime Minister Trudeau intends with his home-grown domestic appellation of a special rapporteur. All we know is what the UN says they are. Assuming the use of the unconventional title isn’t some cynical messaging ploy and tries to emulate the established pattern of its UN counterpart, we can draw on the UN experience to gain insight on what a special rapporteur is and what he or she might do. 

The main qualifications of a special rapporteur for the UN are that he or she is a recognized expert in the requisite field and that they are politically neutral. 

Mr. Trudeau indicated that an “eminent Canadian” would be named to this role. Certainly, there is no shortage of those who would be well-versed in the various elements of what this work would require, from constitutional and electoral law to human rights, geopolitics, and national security. What is more difficult—possibly impossible—is to find such a singly talented and accomplished individual who does not have skin in the game, who has never had an association with any of Canada’s major political parties, nor functioned in any capacity with think tanks and advocacy groups such as the Trudeau Foundation (a recipient of past donations of PRC origin), or those with some affinity with a party, such as Canada 2020 (Liberal), the Canada Strong and Free Network/Manning Centre (Conservative), or the Broadbent Institute (NDP).

The UN’s task is relatively easy insofar as special rapporteurs are rarely—if ever—nationals of the countries that they are tasked to conduct their inquiries in. 

In terms of the work, UN special rapporteurs are on a mandate set by the UN Human Rights Council, not by the subject jurisdiction. These are broad remits and they are generally able to take the inquiry where they see fit. A special rapporteur can investigate any individual cases of “reported violations and concerns of a broader nature” and can send “communications” out related to them—and not just to the subject government. UN Special rapporteurs can also communicate to others, such as “intergovernmental organisations, businesses, military or security companies.” 

If this special rapporteur is meant to function in a similar fashion, they would need to be empowered to interview all manner of individuals—within the government, the opposition, the intelligence and law enforcement communities, academia, and any advocacy groups within the broader society. Given the government’s reluctance to agree to certain witnesses to testify to the PEOC, it is hard to believe that such an unrestricted inquiry would be part of that mandate letter.

But if the government resolved to appoint a special rapporteur whose qualifications and remit approximated the UN precedent, what would it look like?

For one, as it is unlikely a prominent Canadian would be politically neutral to a sufficient degree, the government would need to entertain the possibility of appointing a foreign national knowledgeable in the systems and structures of Canada’s parliamentary democracy. A high-ranking judge or diplomat from Britain, Australia, or New Zealand—jurisdictions that approximate Canada on multiple levels and utilize the Westminster system of government—could ensure both political neutrality and prodigious knowledge.

The rapporteur would also need to be able to set their own direction, have adequate access to information (although much of the classified documentation would be off-limits to a foreign national), and be able to share their report to a broad audience—both within government and outside.

Even in a world where language transmogrifies at an increasing pace, where terms lose old meanings and take on new ones, words still matter. Definitions matter. While unique in the context of the parry and thrust of Canadian politics, the concept of a “special rapporteur” exists, has existed for years, and has a working definition. Employing the term in the context of the allegations of PRC election interference set expectations on process and conduct. The government assumes a greater risk by not respecting that record.

Jeremy Roberts: If you’re still groggy from losing an hour of sleep, hope may be on the horizon

Commentary

Alas, it has happened again.

Sigh.

The dreaded time change is upon us once again—the bane of parents, teenagers, and coffee addicts alike. 

At 2 am Sunday morning, the government snatched away one precious hour of sleep. Worse, when you woke up, you had to spend at least half an hour painstakingly updating every analog clock in your home, along with the microwave, oven, coffee machine, old digital clocks, and the car. 

It’s not the best way to start a relaxing Sunday.

In return for this inconvenience, we are rewarded with more daylight in the afternoon—the only saving grace of the bi-annual time change legislated in almost all provinces across Canada. “Spring Forward” brings with it Daylight Savings Time (DST).

Four-and-a-half months ago I wrote here about my crusade to end the time change in Ontario. To those who might have missed it, during my time as a member of provincial parliament I tabled a private member’s bill that would move Ontario into permanent DST. If it were enacted today, it would mean that after the Spring Forward, we would stop the time change for good, leaving us with more daylight hours in the evening on a permanent basis.

The bill sailed through the legislature in a record 55 days, receiving all-party support. The catch: in order for the Bill to “come into force” we would need Quebec and New York State to follow suit.

While Quebec has expressed interest in the idea, New York State has always been the sticking point. Wrestling the Empire State into line is no easy feat.

However, I am ever the optimist and there remain some signs of good news.

In order for New York State to move to permanent DST, they require authorization from the federal government. The American Uniform Time Act currently mandates that states either follow the biannual time change OR move into permanent standard time.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio is trying to change that. In a bipartisan effort, he has introduced once again his Sunshine Protection Act, a Bill that would allow states to adopt permanent DST. The last iteration of the Bill passed through the Senate relatively unopposed before stalling in the House of Representatives. The hope of many is that this time, the House will take up the Bill for a vote.

A critical mass of support for this measure is building across the American States. So far, 19 states have passed legislation indicating that they would move to permanent DST if authorized, including Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Meanwhile, California voters endorsed the move in a referendum. 

If the Sunshine Protection Act becomes law this year, it will be incumbent on Canadian provinces, like Ontario, to lobby their cross-border partners to move quickly. While bringing New York State on board is the key to unlocking Ontario’s legislation, having Michigan aligned as well would be beneficial. 

In the meantime, more Canadian provinces should move forward with passing provisional legislation, like my Bill in Ontario. In this way, we could send a strong, unified message to our trading partners south of the border that we are ready to make this change with them. There is nothing stopping Quebec, for example, from doing this. A lone intrepid member of the National Assembly could bring forward their own private member’s bill to do this.

The evidence is clear as to the harm that is caused by this bi-annual ritual of disrupting our circadian rhythms. And I have no doubt that legislators who take up this cause will be rewarded by happy parents everywhere, who will be dealing with groggy children for the next few weeks. 

So if you find yourself grumbling over this change in the coming days, look up your provincial representative and send them a note. Urge them to take up this cause and continue moving this forward.

All eyes are on the U.S. Congress. Let’s hope that this Spring Forward is the last one.