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Fri, December 12, 2003

Public Safety ministry combines several agenices

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OTTAWA (CP) - Taking a cue from the United States, the federal government has created an overarching public security ministry to help Canada deal with everything from terrorist threats to natural disasters.

Cabinet veteran Anne McLellan assumes the helm of the new Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness portfolio, which combines agencies under the wing of the Solicitor General with bodies responsible for borders, emergency preparedness and crime prevention.

Most recently health minister, McLellan became well-acquainted with security issues as justice minister and chief sponsor of the government's controversial Anti-Terrorism Act following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Moments after being sworn in to her new post, McLellan said the reconfiguration of security agencies represented an effort to protect Canadians more effectively.

"It is the single most important thing that a government must do, guarantee the security of its people," she said outside Rideau Hall.

"It's not about what was wrong before, it's about what we can do better."

The fledgling department embraces the agencies of the old Solicitor General's portfolio, including the RCMP, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Correctional Service of Canada and National Parole Board.

The Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness and the National Crime Prevention Centre will be hived off from other departments and rolled into the new ministry.

The Public Safety Department will also include the new Canada Border Services Agency, taking in as many as 7,000 federal employees responsible for customs duties; the inspection of passengers, animals, plants, and food; and immigration services such as investigations, intelligence and deportations.

Prime Minister Paul Martin said creation of an expanded security ministry was "long past due" to ensure a more co-ordinated response to unexpected calamities.

The move comes in the wake of the U.S. amalgamation of an even wider variety of security agencies into the Department of Homeland Security, a department as large as Canada's entire federal public service.

McLellan said she looked forward to working with her American counterparts, but was quick to draw a line between the two nations' priorities. "Clearly, we share some safety and security issues, others we don't share."

Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto security expert, said while the new portfolio holds promise, it runs the risk of becoming a "very unruly, very incoherent kind of department" that even a senior minister such as McLellan can't run effectively.

"It'll be important to see how precisely focused that ministry becomes."

As part of its security overhaul, the government will also:

- Increase National Defence Reserves available to handle disasters and other emergencies.

- Make the refugee determination process "more predictable and streamlined."

- Establish a cabinet committee on security, public health and emergencies, chaired by McLellan.

- Propose a Commons standing committee on security whose members would be cleared to receive hearings on sensitive issues.

- Create a new watchdog to oversee the RCMP's national security activities.

- Appoint longtime bureaucrat Robert Wright as national security adviser to the prime minister.

Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper said the creation of new structures would not necessarily make up for the government's recent failings on security files.

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