Elections and security: how safe are we?

As we near the end of a very long federal election campaign, I’d like to review what, if anything, has been said that touches on terrorism and national security  Spoiler alert: not much.  But a lot that has nothing to do with terrorism may actually have a significant impact on how safe we will be in the future.

But first, what has been debated on the terror front?  Aside from the PM telling us that the threat is from ISIS and not CSIS (full disclosure: I could not agree more), and a ludicrous flier about ISIS in our bedrooms from a Conservative candidate in BC, this very important issue has been for the most part absent.  The Conservatives paint both the Liberals and the NDP as soft on terrorism and themselves as the only party that can guarantee Canadians’ security.  C-51 has floated to the top occasionally but voters have not been treated to a real debate on the true nature and level of threat.

In the end I really don’t think it matters who occupies 24 Sussex Drive come October 19 from the perspective of the hard end of CVE (countering violent extremism).  Regardless of the party in power, CSIS, the RCMP and other agencies will continue to fulfill their mandates to investigate and neutralise terrorism.  And they will continue to do so admirably.

It is on the softer end of CVE – intervention, early engagement and community outreach – where there is a very large chasm among the parties.  Essentially, on this important but neglected front, it is anyone but the current governing party that is in a position to do so effectively.

If we assume, rightly in my view based on 30+ years of experience in intelligence, that the single greatest threat on the national security issue comes from Canadians inspired by groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS and who go on to commit acts of terrorism here or abroad, then it is hard to see how any party could further alienate the very group of Canadians on whom our agencies rely for help.  Yes, I am talking about Muslim Canadians.

Whether it is the false crisis of niqab wearers at citizenship ceremonies (all two of them by the way), or the fearmongering about terrorists coming to Canada as refugees (very possible and we should be vigilant but this should not stop us from helping out), or the “barbaric practices snitch line” (who decides what is barbaric?) or the revocation of citizenship (see my blog Citizen Cain of September 27 for a discussion of this complicated issue), it is clear that, deliberately or not, there is an accusation that Canadian Muslims are engaged in activities that threaten us.  When the Minister of Immigration conflates hijabs and terrorism (see my blog Lifting the veil of June 12), a whole community is tarred with the brush of extremism.

The Canadian Muslim communities (note the plural) are critical partners in our collective fight against terrorism.  They see violent radicalisation early and can report it.  They see problematic behaviours that may pose a threat and call it in.  They work with our security and intelligence agencies.  Why on earth would a government so openly marginalise and stigmatise these people, who by the way are fellow Canadians?

If the Conservatives are returned to power on October 19 they face a Sisyphean task of undoing the damage they have done with Muslim Canadians.  It is not impossible, but it will take time.  Trust is hard to achieve and easy to lose.

For a party that bills itself as the best guardians of national security, it is ironic that under its mandate we have become less safe in a way.