What role for national security in the September 2021 federal election?
Phil Gurski · Security Program SET Director at PDI and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting - Posted August 24 2021
Well it has been one heck of a year and a half, hasn’t it?
The planet has lived through COVID- 19 during that period and some places – not all alas! – are showing early signs of getting back to ‘normal’. Or should that be the ‘new’ normal?
We have seen economies dip, millions suffer from the effects of the coronavirus, many of which have been lethal in the end. Travel and tourism have been significantly hit both from nations’ decisions to close borders as well as a lack of interest (or financial wherewithal) to traipse around the globe.
The presence of the disease notwithstanding, the Earth kept spinning and many of the phenomena which have always been part of human societies continued on their merry way, the good and the bad.
In the latter category we would put criminal behaviours, and a subset of these would constitute what we call national security threats. This term is of course subject to interpretation by many parties to the point where there is seldom agreement on the parametres of what exactly DOES constitute a national security threat.
For the purposes of this short think piece we will take it to include ills such as terrorism, espionage and foreign interference, all of which happen to be outlined in section 2 of the CSIS Act. As CSIS is Canada’s ‘early warning’ system for threats of this nature this definition is as good as any.
The news on this front is not good.
Even with the restrictions arising from COVID around the world, there has been NO observable downturn in terrorism in dozens of countries. On a global scale, more than 99% of all attacks normally defined as terrorist in nature are still committed by what are known as Islamist terrorists (think Al Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates as well as dozens of independent actors). There is also a smattering of violent extremism by those who hew to other forms of ideological indoctrination (far right, nationalist, far left, etc.).
Neither espionage nor foreign interference have taken a break either. Nation states such as Russia and China continue to infiltrate state and private entities in countries like Canada and the latter in particular (ie the PRC) is very active in quelling, often with implied threats of violence, opposition to anything that country’s government does (harassment of Uyghurs protesting the gulag set up in Xinjiang Province is the best example of such).
And then there is cyber crime, an area beyond my ken (NB we have some excellent instructors and courses in PDI that you should most definitely consult if this is an area of interest to you).
With all this mayhem unfolding around us, what about Canada? And what role, if any, should questions of national security play in the current federal election campaign? The answer is: it depends.
First and foremost it is important to stress that while all three of the above-delineated threats do exist here none of them are ‘existential’ in nature. That term was thrown about far too often in the aftermath of 9/11 with respect to terrorism and it was no more accurate then than it is now. Yes, these challenges are serious and must be confronted, but according them too much weight leads to bad decision-making. The ‘war on terrorism’ was one such bad move.
Sticking with terrorism in Canada, the ‘terrorism threat level’ in our fair land is at ‘medium’ (on a five point scale), exactly where it has been since 2014 (the year that saw two fatal Islamist attacks in Ottawa and Montreal two days apart in October). The range of actors who could plan violent acts remains much the same as well (Islamist and the far right are the dominant ones). That it has not moved in almost seven years should tell Canadians something.
Foreign states are equally still active at attempts to gain access to sensitive information, including from private entities, and seek to hush up opponents who have chosen Canada as a safe haven to continue to shed light on atrocities in their homelands. Cyber attacks similarly show no signs of dissipating.
What, then, to do about all this? Canada is very fortunate in having bodies such as CSIS, the RCMP, CSE (Communications Security Establishment) and a few others the role of which is to identify, monitor and prevent these threat actors from succeeding. And they do so well even with inadequate resources.
What Canada lacks is a better appreciation for what these agencies do and how to use the information they gather and share. Unlike some of our closest allies (the US and the UK) Canada has historically not had a robust and mature ‘intelligence culture’: governments have traditionally not given intelligence the time, resources and attention it needs. As a consequence, decisions are sometimes made that fly in the face of the best advice these organisations offer.
While there is next to no chance national security will surface as a major issue during the month-long campaign leading up to the September 20 vote, there are nonetheless aspects which should be discussed or, at a minimum, borne in mind. These include:
- An acknowledgement that terrorism is still with us. A small number of Canadians still see joining terrorist groups as a good career move and the government has a duty to not allow our citizens to kill and maim beyond our borders;
- The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban terrorists will have implications for us: do we need to send more special forces to keep a lid on that country should groups like Al Qaeda return to the fore or others arise? Will Canadians try to go there as they did in the 1990s?
- Islamist terrorists in dozens of nations, mostly in Africa and Asia, are very active (and have been so for years): this has an effect on our foreign policy (to include foreign aid);
- The government has to develop a much harsher policy on the PRC to call it out for its actions internally and externally that go against international laws and norms (not to mention its treatment of Canadians held in custody on trumped-up charges);
- Canada has to keep working hard to maintain its long-held relationships with likeminded countries on national security issues. This is not limited to the gold standard ‘5 eyes’ partners (an alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US) but extends to many allies in Europe and elsewhere;
- Instances of harassment and threats to dissidents living on our soil must be identified and those behind these actions must be told that they will NOT be tolerated (with the subsequent implications for bilateral relations);
- Cyber attacks need to be thwarted and agencies like CSE need to given the appropriate level of money and people required to ‘man the barricades).
Canadians need and deserve a government which is sensitive to national security threats and committed to providing the necessary funding and staffing to the agencies which work on these. That government needs to take what these organisations are saying seriously and to accord it importance in decision-making (this has not always been the case in Canada). We are part of an ever-increasingly complex world and our place in it exposes us to more (potential) dangers. We deserve a cohort of agencies fully functional to push back against these threats.
In short, it is not likely that we will see any debate on national security per se over the next 30 days. National security, however, does not take a holiday, pandemic or no pandemic. It keeps ticking in the background standing on guard for thee.
It would be nice to have this acknowledged once in a while, if for no other reason than to recognise the women and men who perform this critical role.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.
Phil Gurski is the Director of the National Security Program at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He worked at CSE and CSIS for more than thirty years. His latest book is The Peaceable Kingdom? A history of terrorism in Canada from Confederation to the present (https://borealisthreatandrisk.com/the-peaceable-kingdom/)