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Body-scanner decision 'speaks volumes about prorogation'

Transport Minister John Baird gestures towards a full body scanner as he announces new airport security measures in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010.

Pawel Dwulit

The decision to install full body scanners at Canadian airports should have been debated in the federal Parliament, a New Democrat MP said Tuesday.

"I think it speaks volumes about prorogation," Dennis Bevington, the MP for Western Arctic said, referring to the fact the House of Commons has been suspended by the Conservative government until after the Vancouver Olympics.

"This sort of issue should actually be coming in front of the Transport committee. We should have witnesses there describing the pros and cons of this very intrusive system."

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LaPresse reported this morning that the scanners will be installed at Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Halifax, among other cities.

Transport Minister John Baird held a press conference this afternoon to announce the measures, which are being introduced in reaction to tough new security restrictions being imposed by the United States.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration already has directed airlines, effective Monday, to give full-body, pat-down searches to U.S.-bound travelers from Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and 11 other countries.

Liberal MP Joe Volpe is also concerned that prorogation has blocked the discussion about full-body scanners in Parliament.

Mr. Volpe said MPs do not have information that would allow them to evaluate the efficacy of the scanners, to determine if the government is getting value for its money, or to decide whether the machines will fulfill the objectives of a long-term security plan.

"We don't know what it was the Americans asked [Mr. Baird]to do, or what they told him to do," he told The Globe. "And we don't know at all whether the value for the health and safety of travelers is going to be satisfied by this measure."

All of this should have come before a Parliamentary committee, Mr. Volpe added.

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The full-body scan is expected to inflame groups that have argued against such procedures, saying they are a violation of privacy and civil liberties. But the scanners are already operating in other airports around the world and several countries, including Britain, the United States and the Netherlands, have recently said they would increase their numbers.

Chantal Bernier, the assistant federal privacy commissioner, said in October that Canada's air security agency had successfully answered her office's questions about the project. She pointed out that the holographic image generated by the scanner makes it difficult to identify the traveler's face.

Under the plan approved by the privacy chief, the officer would view the image in a separate room and never see the actual traveler. Only people singled out for extra screening would be scanned, and they would have the option of getting a physical pat-down instead.

Nathalie Des Rosiers, the general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said her group fears that the lines of people who will choose to be patted rather than photographed naked will be extremely long.

"If you have seen what the body scanner reveals," she said, "it reveals your entire naked body in a way that's extremely intrusive and defies the dignity of the individual."

Ms. Des Rosier said she also fears there may eventually be no pat-down option offered to the countries singled out for extra security precautions by the United States.

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As to why the decision should have been debated by MPs, Mr. Bevington said there are all sorts of issues that arise from taking full nude shots of people.

"How does that fit with elderly people? How does it fit with children?" he said. "What are the rules around the use of the machines by the operators? These are things that we don't know."

(Photo: The Transport Minister announces new airport security measures today in Ottawa. The Canadian Press)

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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