Canada Urgently Needs to Rethink Its National Security Strategy

As recent events have demonstrated, Western liberal democracies face an uncertain and tumultuous world. Canada, as a member of NATO and the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, as well as a close security partner of the United States in North America, is not isolated from this reality. Confronted with rising threats both at home and abroad, Canada should take its national security more seriously. Otherwise, Canada places its interests, values, and citizens, and those of its allies and partners, at growing risk.

The Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa recently released a report calling on Canada to take bold action in this area. Supported by a group of retired Canadian senior public servants with extensive national security experience, including former national security and intelligence advisers to the prime minister, deputy ministers of defense, foreign affairs, and justice, and directors of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, it recommends the pursuit of new strategies, tools, governance bodies, and transparency measures on an urgent basis.

The report begins with an indisputable fact: Canada’s security environment, like in other democracies, is rapidly deteriorating. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine validated an emerging global trend—the return of geostrategic competition. Moscow’s aggression has rekindled memories of the Cold War, raising the specter of hostilities against NATO and of nuclear war. China’s assertive behavior on the international stage also raises major concerns. Canada has seen a direct impact on national security in the form of hostage diplomacy, espionage, foreign interference, and disinformation.

Chinese and Russian activities have also highlighted a deepening ideological divide between democracy and autocracy, with the former clearly on the defensive. Democratic backsliding in the United States only exacerbates these trends.

International terrorism in the shape of al Qaeda and the Islamic State has not disappeared. While their capabilities have been degraded in recent years, these groups and their affiliates retain the intent to strike against Western targets. Canada has witnessed the rise of right-wing extremism, including during the Freedom Convoy protests in Ottawa and the associated border blockades in Coutts, Alberta, and Windsor, Ontario earlier this year

Transnational trends such as climate change and pandemics threaten Canada’s safety and health as individuals, as well as the nation’s social and economic well-being, while the spread of technology enables cyber intrusions and other intrusions, as well as the development of sophisticated new weaponry, such as hypersonic missiles. Importantly, individuals, not just governments, are directly threatened as never before—from scientists in academic and research institutions to pharmaceutical companies in the private sector. The definition of national security has been reshaped and expanded.

When these and other threats imperil Canada’s people, democratic values and institutions, economy, society, and sovereignty, Canadians expect their government to protect them. Yet neither Canadians nor their governments take national security seriously on a consistent basis. This has led to widespread complacency. Canada’s position on national security seems little changed since 1924, when Senator Raoul Dandurand told an international gathering that Canadians “live in a fireproof house far from inflammable materials.” Canada’s history and geography created and then reinforced this attitude. Since the start of European settlement, Canadians have relied on others—first France, then Britain, now the United States—for protection. Taking shelter under the U.S. umbrella has worked well. Canada has not experienced a direct violent attack against its citizens in recent memory on the same scale as some of Canada’s allies, with the last major one being the Air India attack of 1985. This has paved the way for Canada’s neglect of national security. When Canada does respond to national security crises, it is often last-minute and ad hoc.

Canada’s peers, including its partners in the Five Eyes such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, are revamping policies, identifying new tools and authorities, reforming institutions, devoting new resources to security, and seeking new partnerships. They possess not only a deeper appreciation of the threats facing the West but also a more sophisticated national security culture. Canada is falling behind.

This report recommends several ways to better protect Canada as a nation and its people and keep pace with its allies.

First, Canada has not had a national security or foreign policy statement in over 15 years. The world has been transformed over that time. A thorough public review will raise awareness among Canadians, identify the tools required to carry out priorities, and introduce needed changes in governance and transparency. As part of this review, the government should ensure its foreign, defense, and development policies and instruments are adequate in this new security environment. This does not mean isolated updates such as recently announced for defense in the federal budget, but a comprehensive approach that assesses all Canada’s national security needs in a coordinated fashion to respond to threats at home and abroad. Canada needs, for example, a defense policy nestled in a national security context and supporting its foreign policy. The recent Integrated Review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy undertaken by the United Kingdom serves as a useful model in this regard.

Second, the government should ensure that its national security tools are up to date and fit for purpose. This includes reviewing outdated legislation such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Act, which was established nearly 40 years ago and has failed to keep up with rapid and widespread technological changes. Recent developments, from the Freedom Convoy to aggressive Chinese investments efforts in Canada, have also pointed to the need to review the Emergencies Act, the Investment Canada Act and the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act. Canada also needs to collect and share intelligence more effectively, both inside and outside the federal government. Particular attention should be paid to sharing information with provinces, territories, municipalities, and the private sector, all of which are critical partners in a whole of Canada response to threats. Canada should also take better advantage of open-source intelligence opportunities, especially with respect to social media. Canada needs to develop strategies and specific instruments to deal with the hostile activities of state actors (foreign interference, disinformation, espionage, cyberattacks) and domestic extremism.

Third, Canada needs to revisit its national security governance framework. The report recommends, for example, that the government establish a national security cabinet body, chaired by the prime minister, which would meet regularly and take a longer and more strategic view of threats and would not merely focus on ad hoc responses to crises. This would bring Canada in line with its Five Eyes partners, all of whom have variations of such a body. The government should also review the roles and resources of the national security and intelligence adviser to the prime minister, a key player in the national security community whose role and responsibilities have evolved over the last 15 years. This would include beefing up the intelligence function at the center of government, so that a better, more integrated intelligence picture can be presented to the prime minister and cabinet.

Finally, government needs to better engage the public. The national security community’s tradition of secrecy is outdated and counterproductive. It creates mistrust at a time when government needs Canadians’ support more than ever. The report recommends that the national security community’s engagement efforts be increased, both with the broader public—civil society, the private sector, academia, and the media—and parliament. This would include annual public threat assessments, the release of intelligence priorities, greater intelligence disclosures as has been recently seen in the United States and the United Kingdom, more speeches by senior officials, public government responses to the reports of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, and regular briefings to parliamentarians.

Canada’s national security complacency should come to an end. Canada should acknowledge and respond appropriately to increased security threats as part of a whole-of-Canada approach that brings all levels of government, the private sector, civil society, and the public together. The report ’s core recommendations do not require massive new spending, but they do require that governments have the courage to look at national security beyond today’s news cycle or the next election.

Vincent Rigby is a non-resident senior adviser with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Thomas Juneau is an associate professor with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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Thomas Juneau

Associate Professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa