What will Canada’s national security and public safety challenges be in 2021?

Phil Gurski · Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting · Posted: January 11, 2021

As the calendar flipped from December 2020 to January 2021 there is a good chance that many, if not most, of us did not see a big difference. Heck, even the annual New York Times Square ball drop was ‘cancelled’ this year (the ball still ‘dropped’ but there was no one present to see it given that the area was closed to the public)!

The ‘year of COVID-19’ is continuing apace: it is actually getting worse perhaps as a variant has turned up that appears to spread more rapidly. Just about everything today is seen through the coronavirus prism. Whether it is whither the economy, government finances, vaccine roll-outs or the eventual return to whatever normal will look like down the road, it is hard to talk about anything else. Understandably so.

And yet there are other matters to discuss. As we in the SET program seek to address through our courses, ‘morning briefs’ and occasional webinars, there is still a need to talk about national security and public safety challenges. As always, there are several key risks and threats that are affecting, and will continue to affect, Canada in 2021. This short blog looks briefly at what some of those may be.

Note: this is not a predictive piece. I am neither a seer nor the owner of a crystal ball. The issues I present here are best guesses at what we should be worried about based on recent events and a reasonable supposition that some may continue to bedevil us in 2021.

Let’s go back to the coronavirus. COVID-19 is of course both a public safety AND a national security threat (the two are NOT synonymous). As more and more Canadians become ill – some of whom will die from the disease – the safety of the public is adversely affected. In addition, since this particular illness is truly national in scope, albeit with regional variations (the Maritime provinces appear to be doing much better on average), it does impact national security as I will try to outline. You can bet on this unique threat – i.e. the disease – continuing through much of 2021.

With all the attention on stopping COVID, those agencies within Canada tasked with keeping us safe (RCMP, CSIS, other law enforcement bodies) are likely struggling with the same restrictions as all Canadians (a need to maintain social distancing, the need to work from home, the challenge of doing so with sensitive intelligence, etc.). This could in theory lead to opportunities which could be exploited by bad actors (criminals, terrorists, etc.), although there has thankfully been no indication thus far that such actors are taking advantage of COVID-19 to carry out more mayhem.

In addition, the financial burdens caused by a combination of greater government outflows and lower tax inflows will by necessity make it much harder for our protectors to get the funding they need to maintain their normal operational tempo, let alone look at more threats. These agencies will nevertheless need to look at all threats – terrorism, espionage and foreign interference – with existing resources.

One area that does seem to show concrete evidence of nefarious activity is that of hacking. While this category of crime predates COVID-19, the massive increase in the use of the Web to hold meetings, work from home, and consume and create data all contribute to greater opportunities for these bad actors to operate. ‘Zoom bombing‘ may be a relatively innocuous irritant, but the expansive hacking of government and private sector computer systems – likely by Russia – is very worrisome and will most certainly continue. This qualifies as a true national security threat.

We will have to wait to see if over a longer period of time the effects of the pandemic do indeed lead to an uptick in criminal/terrorist activity. What will the effects of long-term isolation, job loss and/or economic downturns, and frustration have on the general population? Again it is too early to tell, but there are legitimate concerns that a combination of the aforementioned factors could lead some to lash out violently.

With specific reference to public safety, there is always the phenomenon of terrorism to broach. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2020 (NB one of the authors of that report provided an overview of the 2019 findings to a University of Ottawa crowd organised by SET in December 2019 – before the coronavirus started to make such mass gatherings unwise), deaths from terrorism did fall for the fifth consecutive year, but it is not yet time to break out the champagne. Islamist terrorist groups continue to carry out attacks on a daily basis in countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and a few others. Recent obsession in the West with what is broadly referred to as right-wing extremism (RWE), a very real threat on its own, does not take away the fact that the vast majority of lethal attacks in 2020 worldwide were executed by Islamist terrorists, not white nationalists/supremacists: that trend will most likely continue in 2021. In the West itself there are still far too many such violent Islamist extremists planning acts of terrorism: it is not all about RWE (and in any event the problem in Canada is orders of magnitude smaller than that in the US).

Counter terrorism officers in Canada – CSIS and the RCMP – will have their work cut out for them in 2021 as they struggle to maintain adequate resources and carry out investigations on the whole spectrum of terrorism threats. And to throw one more into the mix: what do we do about conspiracy theorists? Belief in ‘lizard people’ and ‘satanic pedophile rings’ may strike the vast majority as laughable but it is not beyond the realm of possible that a few ‘true believers’ will target whom they see as behind these ‘plots’ (the December 2016 attempt by a North Carolina man to ‘save the children’ held by a Hillary Clinton-led cabal at a Washington, DC pizza parlour was no laughing matter).

Bringing back COVID into this conversation on terrorism, we need also to consider how (or rather if) extremists and extremist groups could leverage the pandemic to advance their own narratives and extremist world views, to accelerate recruitment trends and enhance their profiles. Islamist extremist groups have seen the disease as a ‘punishment from God’ and exhorted their followers to take advantage of the upheaval to carry out attacks. RWE groups have also used conspiracy theories (COVID is fake, masks and vaccines don’t work, this is a government plot to take control of populations, etc.) to galvanise their cohorts. Violence along these lines is a very real possibility.

Then there is foreign interference. As a nation proudly made up increasingly of immigrants, Canada is a natural target for governments seeking to exert influence and pressure on expatriate populations to silence their criticism of human rights violations overseas. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is particularly egregious in this regard (targeting Uyghur Muslims and Hong Kong activists in Canada) as is Saudi Arabia (there are credible reports that the Kingdom sent a ‘hit squad’ to take out a dissident living in Toronto). These too are problems which our national security agencies have to handle, in addition to everything else we ask them to do.

All in all, Canada may be a safe country, one that does not suffer from the high levels of insecurity plaguing far too many nations on Earth. This should not be taken as a sign that all is well. There are real threats in our land, at both the public safety and national security levels, and we need to ensure that the bodies tasked with confronting them – and preventing bad actors from inflicting damage on our society – have the necessary resources to do so.

2021 will be an interesting year indeed!

PS A bit of ‘what-ifism’. In the wake of the reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh by troops in Azerbaijan in November 2020, Armenia, which controlled the area since 1994, is livid. The fact that Azerbaijan was aided by Turkey makes matters worse. Turkey, under the auspices of the dying Ottoman Empire, engaged in what everyone agrees was a genocide against Armenians in 1915-16, and is now pushing its weight around the Middle East and North Africa. To exacerbate the situation, the Erdogan regime continues to deny the massacre (the Armenian Prime Minister said in October that Turkey wants to ‘reinstate’ its empire and ‘continue’ the genocide). Armenian terrorists did carry out attacks against Turkish interests in the 1980s (including two in Ottawa, in 1982 and 1985). It is possible we will see more in 2021. Maybe.

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 Security, Economics and Technology program at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute and a 32-year veteran of Canada’s security intelligence agencies.

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