Maybe Canadians should listen to CSIS when it talks about China

CSIS rarely says a lot openly about what it knows: when it does it should be listened to.

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on December 16, 2019.


Canadians could be said to have a love-hate relationship with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Wait, scratch that. A few Canadians seem to have a love-hate relationship with CSIS. On the one half there are those who think our spy agency is the spawn of Satan populated with knuckle-dragging, sloped-forehead simian life forms who love to see threats where there are not. On the other there are the (obviously smarter) ones who recognise what CSIS does for us. I am not surprisingly squarely in the latter camp.

I’d wager that the vast majority of Canadians have no views one way of the other on CSIS. Furthermore I would submit that this is because CSIS rarely features in the headlines and even more rarely says anything about what it is doing in the open. The former is a good thing in a way. When CSIS does appear in our news feeds it is because it has done something ‘wrong’, or at least wrong in the eyes of the beholder. That CSIS does something ‘right’ is never stated. Hence Canadians get a skewed view of what it does and why.

China is playing us for dupes. We need to understand that no one, and especially no state, does anything important out of altruism.

As for CSIS reticence, well that is understandable. It operates in the shadows after all and cannot be blabbing its mouth over ongoing methods, sources or operations. Any intelligence service that seeks to have an open-book policy would not stay in business very long.

The CSIS crest
Maybe we should pay attention?

So when CSIS makes the difficult decision to tell Canadians ANYTHING about what keeps its men and women up at night we might want to pay attention, if for no other reason that this is as common as a Canada-based NHL Stanley Cup winning team these days (ouch!).

In this vein I want to bring up what the PRC (China) is doing in our fair land. You are all very aware that Canada is in a very serious bun fight with the Middle Kingdom over the lawful detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and the subsequent unlawful Chinese detention of two Canadians. This has been followed up with trade sanctions and other nastiness by the Chinese.

It should come as a shock to no one that China, and more specifically Chinese influence in Canada, has been on the CSIS radar for some time. CSIS does have the mandate to investigate ‘foreign interference’ under Section 2 b) of the CSIS Act, although Section 2 a) – espionage- could just as easily apply. We do not know a lot about the Service’s investigations for reasons already discussed.

A calculated use of the discipline known as ‘soft power’
Image result for confucius institute canada

One thing that has come out in the open however is China’s funding of so-called ‘Confucius Institutes’ on Canadian university campuses. As far back as 2007 a redacted CSIS report noted that these programs constituted “a calculated use of the discipline known as ‘soft power.'” Maybe for some the spread of soft power is nothing to get one’s knickers in a knot over but CSIS also thinks that the institutes are used for political interference and censorship in some of its classes.

As an aside and for the record I have met Uyghur Canadians who have been threatened by some who do not want anyone to know about China’s program of genocide in Xinjiang Province. These Canadians have been not so subtly warned to keep quiet for the sake of their families back home.

Despite all the evidence of Chinese shenanigans in Canada and elsehwhere in the West, some Canadians don’t want to accept the truth.

Despite all the evidence of Chinese shenanigans in Canada and elsehwhere in the West, some Canadians don’t want to accept the truth. Some Canadian schools see the Confucius Institute as a “handy teaching tool”: the Edmonton school board for one welcomes the program. The chairperson of the board even went to Beijing to renew the contract, all paid for by the PRC: she does not believe her independence as a trustee was compromised by having the trip expenses covered by China.

EPSB board chair Trisha Estabrooks  (Photo: CBC)
‘Useful idiots’

I have long admired the phrase once used by Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin but been reluctant to cite it openly for reasons that should be obvious. The phrase? ‘Useful idiots’. The term refers to those who support a cause without fully comprehending the cause’s goals, and who are cynically used by the cause’s leaders. It was usually a reference to those who thought the Soviet Union and the Communist system was the best thing since sliced bread.

I am fully convinced that Canadians who take China’s actions in our country at face value fit the definition. The PRC is playing us for dupes, much as it is the rest of the world with its ‘One Belt One Road’ economic plan. We need to understand that no one, and especially no state, does anything important out of altruism. China’s activities here have one goal and one goal only: to present the PRC in the best light and clamp down on any criticism, with threats if necessary.

C’mon Canada! We are a nice people and I am thankful for that. This does not mean we have to be naive and gullible.

C’mon Canada! We are a nice people and I am thankful for that. This does not mean we have to be naive and gullible. Take CSIS’s advice and shut down the Confucius Institutes for the sake of national security (Belgium just did exactly that when it concluded China was using the program for spying purposes). There are other ways to teaching Mandarin and learn about Chinese culture: we don’t need the PRC to do it for us.

Phil Gurski is a former senior strategic intelligence analyst at CSIS.


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.