Senators are concerned that a long-delayed Liberal bill aimed at unblocking Canadian aid in Afghanistan will bog down development groups in red tape and block access based on prejudicial bureaucracy.
“We have been creative within the confines of the law,” Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told the Senate human-rights committee Monday evening.
He was speaking hours after the House passed Bill C-41, which comes more than a year after many Canadian allies issued exemptions in their terrorism laws for aid workers.
The Criminal Code currently bars Canadian aid workers from paying taxes for any labour or goods in Afghanistan, as doing so could lead to prosecution for financially supporting the governing Taliban, which Ottawa designates as a terrorist group.
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Bill C-41 would allow development workers, such as those building schools, to apply for exemptions to do their work. Following amendments from the Conservatives and the NDP, it would also enact a blanket exemption for humanitarian workers providing life-saving aid in response to emergencies.
Yet senators raised concerns to Mendicino about how the bill will actually be enforced, such as how bureaucrats will weigh applications for waivers. Sen. Mobina Jaffer said Afghan-Canadians are particularly worried they will face increased scrutiny when seeking exemptions from terrorism laws.
“How do you define impartial? Because that’s not the community’s experience of how the various departments have defined impartial,” Jaffer told Mendicino.
“You know that that’s subjective, and the community is nervous.”
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Some senators pressed Mendicino for a rough timeline on how long it will take applications to be processed, after aid groups sought a service standard from the government, while acknowledging these timelines might vary based on the breadth of the work.
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“We’re going to do everything that we can to come up with a process that is efficient,” Mendicino testified.
The bill passed the House Monday afternoon with support from all parties except the NDP, who said it violates aid workers’ independence if they have to seek government permission to do their work abroad.
“The principle of third-party authorization — effectively forcing Canadian aid agencies to seek permission of the Government of Canada to do their important work in fragile contexts abroad — is unprecedented and unacceptable,” NDP foreign-affairs critic Heather McPherson wrote in a statement.
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