Just how widespread is extremism in Canadian schools?

If you want to know what CSIS does and why it does it, a good place to start is the CSIS Act which dates back to the creation of that organisation out of the former RCMP Security Service back in 1984.  The Act has stood up fairly well over its first three decades despite several court challenges on aspects of the Service’s operations.  CSIS remains a competent, albeit not perfect, security intelligence agency and one that has contributed to the foiling of many terrorist plots and foreign espionage activities.

What CSIS is tasked with focusing on is found in section 2 of the Act.  Here is that section in its entirety:

threats to the security of Canada means

  • (a) espionage or sabotage that is against Canada or is detrimental to the interests of Canada or activities directed toward or in support of such espionage or sabotage,

  • (b) foreign influenced activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person,

  • (c) activities within or relating to Canada directed toward or in support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or ideological objective within Canada or a foreign state, and

  • (d) activities directed toward undermining by covert unlawful acts, or directed toward or intended ultimately to lead to the destruction or overthrow by violence of, the constitutionally established system of government in Canada

Today I want to focus on section 2b) which is really a lesser known priority when compared to sections 2a) (what we call counter intelligence) and 2c) (counter terrorism) – for the record 2d) is rarely encountered (I cannot recall a single investigation conducted under 2d) over my decade and a half at CSIS).  2b) refers to efforts by foreign states or actors to influence communities in Canada in ways that benefit those states and in ways that we consider not in our interests.

The reason for this piece is a curious article I saw in today’s National Post by Sheryl Saperia entitled “A way to keep extremism out of our schools“.  The author, Director of Policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (a US thinktank – wait, what is a US entity doing commenting on our situation?), makes the argument that a private members’ bill (C-371) will help prevent radicalisation in Canadian religious, cultural and educational institutions sponsored by certain foreign governments (Iran and Saudi Arabia are named outright) while exceptions would be made for Canada’s “liberal democratic allies” (the US and Israel for example) whose influence is OK I guess.  In light of the rise of Jewish extremism in Israel (let alone US political extremism under the Trump administration) I am not so sure either nation should get a free pass in my country.

Ms. Saperia’s article goes on to provide many examples of Iranian and Saudi perfidy in this regard although only Iran is cited for specific actions in Canada.  Here is what I am concerned about: the problem of foreign interference is real, but not as egregious as the op-ed makes it out to be.  I was privy to intelligence during my time at CSIS on 2b) investigations but I did not see it as the burgeoning, serious threat Ms. Saperia states, although I acknowledge that  a lot may have changed since my departure in 2013 (still, I am skeptical).  The threat is certainly nowhere near as important as 2a) and 2c) and it would be foolish for CSIS to divert finite resources to investigate the alleged threat from foreign interference in schools as recommended in this National Post piece.  I can assure Ms. Saperia that the problem is being addressed and I cannot see how a new Act of Parliament will add to what is already well outlined in the CSIS Act.  If the problem grows in scope then more resources are required, not more laws.

For the record, the Post article paints Iranian efforts to ‘indoctrinate and radicalise’ as equally dangerous as those of the Saudis.  True, the Iranians are no angels but to compare Shia fundamentalism (or ‘Khomeinism’ as it is called – I really dislike that term) to Sunni Islamist extremism, in Canada or elsewhere, betrays a serious misunderstanding of threat level.  I also take issue with a US organisation telling Canada what to do but that may be just my maple leaf showing.

We in Canada and the West – and everywhere else for that matter – are beset by real threats from real actors who mean us harm.  We do not have the luxury to chase lesser threats that can be managed with existing laws and agencies.

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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