This piece appeared in The Hill Times on April 22, 2019.
Pop quiz! How can you tell an election is coming up in Canada?
a) the government puts out a report that some identifiable part of our society takes offence to;
b) that part happens to be concentrated in several ridings the ruling party currently holds and which hanging on to may decide whether it keeps a majority this October;
c) the government says it will change the aforementioned report to remove the ‘offending language’.
To what am I referring? Why, nothing other than the announcement by the Minister of Public Safety that the department’s recent annual terrorism report, which noted that Sikh terrorism was back on the government’s radar, would be modified to use the term ‘ideology’ rather than ‘religion’. Oh, and those ridings I cited? All held in Sikh concentrated parts of Canada.
There is so much that stinks of the government reaction that I scarcely know where to begin. How about with the Canadian Criminal Code where terrorist activity is defined in part as a criminal act carried out “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause”. Yes, religion can lead to terrorism: we certainly have seen this with Islamist extremism for decades. This clause does not imply normative religion or that the majority of believers are terrorists.
Secondly, there is no question that some, probably (?) a tiny number, in Canada’s Sikh community still support terrorism movements. Why else would some gurdwaras still feature the photos of those behind the 1985 Air India attack, the largest one in history prior to 9/11? As to accusations that the 2018 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada inserted a section on Sikh extremism (it is quite short by the way – here is what is written: “Some individuals in Canada continue to support violent means to establish an independent state within India…While attacks around the world in support of this movement have declined, support for the extreme ideologies of such groups remains. For example, in Canada, two organizations, Babbar Khalsa International and the International Sikh Youth Federation, have been identified as being associated with terrorism and remain listed terrorist entities under the Criminal Code.”) under pressure from India is laughable. This report is written based on the advice given to the Minister by Canada’s security intelligence and law enforcement agencies (CSIS, CSE and the RCMP), not from the Modi government.
Lastly. wasn’t this the same government that made a big deal last week about the seriousness of the right wing extremism threat? So, we can only list one threat at a time now? I for one think that we can handle more than that, even if resource allocation is a challenge at the best of times.
I have long known that the Canadian government has an on-again off-again relationship with intelligence. We certainly do not have the ‘intelligence culture’ that others in the ‘5 Eyes’ alliance do. But can it not at least take what its protectors give it at face value and use it to craft policies that make sense? Instead of giving in to partisan/ethnic pressure to pooh-pooh real threats?
Or is that asking too much?
Phil Gurski is a former strategic terrorism analyst at CSIS. His latest book “God made me do it: how extremists justify violence through faith” will be published later this fall.