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QUESTION - Electoral System—Revisions to the Elections Act

Hon. Serge Joyal: My question is for the Government Representative in the Senate.

I would have preferred to ask this question to the Minister of Democratic Institutions yesterday because my question is directly related to that subject. However, I am happy and honoured to ask the leader the question.

Following the revelation on Monday of the manipulation of the electorate during the last American election and the previous referendum on Brexit by the firm Cambridge Analytica using the private information of more than 50 million users made available by Facebook, and considering that section 3 of the Charter of Rights provides that each Canadian citizen has the right to vote freely and without undue influence in any election, is the government willing to immediately propose measures to prevent the manipulation of the private information of Canadian voters through the Internet in time for the next federal election? When can we expect legislation amending the Canada Elections Act, which was written for a pre-digital world?

Hon. Peter Harder (Government Representative in the Senate): I thank the honourable senator for his question. Like the honourable senator, I wish he had asked the minister as well. I will endeavour to answer part of his question, but there are parts he is asking that I will have to seek additional material on.

I want to assure him and all honourable senators that the government takes very seriously the protection of Canadians’ privacy and their online presence. In that regard, the Minister of Democratic Institutions is working to strengthen protections of our electoral system and our democratic institutions from interference from outside forces. As the minister hinted at in his answer to another question yesterday, the ministry is coming forward with some amendments to the Canada Elections Act in response to that.

I would also like to take this opportunity to support the Privacy Commissioner’s actions where he proactively reached out to Facebook to get more information and to make clear the importance of protecting the privacy of Canadians.

The government is pleased that the Privacy Commissioner has announced plans to investigate these allegations. The government takes these allegations very seriously and will do what it can in further protecting both the private information of Canadians and the integrity of our electoral system.

As the honourable senator will know, in the last budget the government placed a good deal of resources on cybersecurity. Amongst the issues of cybersecurity are, of course, our democratic institutions and electoral processes.

With respect to some specific questions that the honourable senator asked with regard to the timing of potential amendments, I will endeavour to report back as soon as possible.

Senator Joyal: In the context of the next election, I think honourable senators will recognize that time is of the essence here because even if we adopt election legislation this spring, for example, the time that the Chief Electoral Officer will need to implement those changes and adjust the overall system to it is of the essence. Otherwise, I think it will be a generous intention that will not be transformed into active regulation within the system and the capacity of the system to implement it.

My question to you is to insist again on the urgency that those measures be introduced this spring so that we have time, before the summer adjournment, to consider them and make the proper recommendations in time. Before the other place takes them and before they come back here and we pay sober second thought to them, we need time to do that. I ask the government leader to press the government to do its utmost to introduce that as soon as possible so that we can contemplate that the next election will be run without the undue interference and involvement we have seen which, as Christopher Wylie has said, is targeting the inner demons of Canadians. That’s certainly not what we want at the next federal election.

Senator Harder: Again, senator, I will undertake to pass that message to the minister responsible.

I want to, though, indicate the high priority the government places on this issue for the very reasons that the honourable senator cites. One of the complexities, of course, is that, in the world of cybersecurity, it is important to ensure that the Canadian Security Establishment and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are all part of the response. That work is under way as we speak to ensure that the legislation that could be contemplated is the most robust and most contemporary in responding to the most contemporary of challenges in the cybersecurity space.