Canada Day reflections on national security

If you were to listen to enough news these days you’d think that Canadians have little, if anything, to celebrate this day, our 151st birthday as an independent nation.  An ‘epidemic’ of shootings in Toronto.   A trade war with our neighbour and (erstwhile?) closest ally.  Yet another year and no Stanley Cup winner among Canada’s seven NHL teams.  Is there any reason to mark Canada Day this year?

To add to the apparent misery there is the sense that we are not as safe as we once were.  An op-ed on the CBC Web site talks of the security now in place on Parliament Hill in Ottawa as “another advance by the securitized state.”    The article goes on to cite concrete barriers outside Toronto’s Union Station, metal detectors and bag searches at City Halls in Edmonton and Calgary, electronic security access cards, CCTV surveillance cameras and “a universal public health approach” all of which have had “a corrosive impact on the economy and on basic trust”.   Although those responsible professionally for assessing risk (I guess that would include me) agree that as a planet we have never been safer (I do recommend Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why violence has declined) the vast majority of poll respondents believe it is more dangerous out there, leading to an “exaggerated perception of risk in both Canada and the US.”

So what gives?  Are things really that bad?  Are they going to get worse?

I will take a stab at answering the last question first before weighing in on the general state of the world (and Canada).  The simple truth is: I have no idea and neither does anyone else.  None of us can predict the future with any confidence and those that think they can are deluding both us and themselves.  Sure, those of us who watch events closely in country X or region Y can come up with trends that may or will likely unfold in the near term but there are and will always be far too many ‘black swans’ – the current term used to describe an unpredictable or unforeseen event, typically one with extreme consequences – to afford us any degree of accuracy in our predictions.  British writer L. P. Hartley once wrote “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”: that has been modified to read “The future is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  We cannot tell what will happen tomorrow, the next day or any other day so let’s stop pretending we can.

More importantly, to get to the second question, no, things are not that bad.  “Bad” is of course a relative term and how “bad” things are do depend crucially on where you are.  If you happen to be in Afghanistan right now things are bad: just yesterday Islamic State (IS) terrorists beheaded three school attendants and burned down the facility in the country’s easternmost province.  If you are in Iraq there are daily IS attacks despite the group’s alleged downfall.  Similar levels of violence occur in Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere in Asia and Africa.

But if you have the good fortune to live in the West, broadly speaking, things are good.  True, there is the odd terrorist attack and countries like the US suffer from ridiculously high levels of gun violence (thanks to that nation’s inability to correctly parse the meaning of their Constitution’s Second Amendment), yet overall those societies are very safe.  Will they remain so?  I have no clue.  There are some worrying signs on the immediate horizon – the refugee/immigration crisis, the rise of intolerant populism, uncertain economic prospects, etc. – any of which could shift the future down another trajectory.  Time will tell.  For now, however, the situation is stable.

We in Canada on the other hand have to acknowledge that we reside in an amazing, beautiful country, and one that is secure and absent the levels of violence we see elsewhere.  That goes for terrorism as well.  The last terrorist attack was last fall in Edmonton and even that was a small incident in which no one died.  We are fortunate to have well-qualified protectors in CSIS, the RCMP and other law enforcement agencies that work tirelessly to keep us safe.  While terrorism is always potentially a threat it is not a frequent one in Canada and I cannot imagine a scenario where that will change in the immediate future (black swans notwithstanding).  We must continue to bear that in mind.

On this Canada Day then get out and celebrate.  Have a BBQ. Go to the cabin/cottage/chalet.  Watch a parade.  Take in the fireworks. Sure, you may have to go through a security check but do not let that spoil your fun.  There is so much to be thankful for in this land of ours that to not mark the occasion would be a shame.  We have our problems and we need to fix them.  Still, today is a day to be proud of what we have achieved.  We are normally a diffident people but today we should boast a little.

Happy Canada Day to all!

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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