National security priorities for the Liberal minority government

Here’s what needs to be done on the national security/public safety front.

This article appeared in The Hill Times on October 28, 2019


Many pundits remarked (as did I in a previous Hill Times article) that we saw neither hide nor hair of anything related to national security or foreign policy in the platforms of any of the main parties during the election campaign.

I speculated then that the Liberals, who of course will remain the governing party albeit in a minority status, probably eschewed the topic explicitly as there was much to embarrass them (and remind Canadians of decisions seen as disastrous: the invitation to a convicted Sikh terrorist on the India trip is just one). Ditto on the foreign policy side.

I will leave analysis on the latter to those who specialise in such matters, and focus instead on what needs to be done on the national security/public safety front. It turns out that there is much, indeed, that requires thought and action. Here are some of those issues along with my humble suggestions on possible recourse.

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First and foremost, perhaps, is what to do with the handful of Canadians who left to join Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. Most are probably dead and hence no longer pose a threat to our nation or any other. Some, predominantly women and children, are in camps/prisons, many run by the Kurds who have begged Canada and other countries to take back their citizens. Turkish military incursions into that region have complicated things and there are already reports of ‘escapes’ from those facilities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured on Oct. 23, 2019, after holding his first press conference since winning his second term in government on Monday, Oct. 21. There are many challenges facing Canadians and it will not be easy to prioritize them. Still, is it not important to ensure a secure environment for all of us?

Repatriation

Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not advocate repatriation (with one exception). The government is correct when it says it has no legal obligation to help those who chose to become terrorists. Canadians who have committed terrorist crimes abroad should face justice where those crimes took place, even if the particular form of justice over there does not meet our standards.

If necessary, Canada could help set up international courts to try these terrorists in situ. The one exception lies in the situation for children of terrorists: they should be returned immediately and given medical and psychological attention. They should also be placed with extended family or in state care as their parents are clearly not fit to raise children.

Intelligence and law enforcement agencies

Secondly, the government needs to ensure that its primary intelligence and law enforcement agencies responsible for public safety and national security – i.e. CSIS and the RCMP – have the necessary resources to keep us safe. Threats are multiplying and these organisations have to look more deeply not only at a growing far right extremist milieu (more on that in a bit), while still keeping tabs on the ever-present Islamist threat, but also at a probable rise in leftist, primarily environmental, movements which may resort to violence when they see an inadequate policy/legislative response to what they view as an existential menace to our planet.

Canada has been abuzz lately on what to do with ‘Jihadi Jack‘, a UK-Canadian who joined ISIS. What should we do with him and other ‘foreign fighters’?

Climate change

Speaking of climate change, the government will have to start thinking of how this will impact national security. New threats will emanate from: warming and rising sea levels leading to increased human migration, which will put pressure on our border and immigration officials; the introduction of new diseases able to thrive in a changed Canadian environment, which will put pressure on public health; and changes to agricultural patterns, which will put our food security at risk. I am not sure how much attention these risks are getting in Ottawa (NB an April 2020 conference sponsored by the University of Ottawa will address some of these). Better to pay attention to these issues now than to do so hurriedly later on.

What about populism? Maxime Bernier’s failure to win a single seat for his People’s Party of Canada signals that we are not immediately headed towards the dog-whistle politics so familiar in many parts of the Western world (including the US) and I would argue that this worldview is antithetical to most of us. Nevertheless, there are Canadians who are angry at a whole host of issues (immigration, multiculturalism, etc.) and it is not impossible that some may turn to violence, aligning themselves with the more unsavoury right-wing extremist groups. This will bear watching.

Nevertheless, there are Canadians who are angry at a whole host of issues (immigration, multiculturalism, etc.) and it is not impossible that some may turn to violence.

Furthermore, there is the foreign interference angle – it will be interesting to see whether agencies such as CSE disclose how much of such activity occurred in this election – and the foreign influence one. China has been particularly active in Canada in its efforts to shut down Uyghur relatives of incarcerated family members in Xinjiang, pro-Hong Kong protesters, and Tibetan activists here. All these activities require human and technical resources to fully monitor and thwart.

Additionally, the Liberals will have to create policy and laws on guns, as average Canadians, police chiefs and mayors are demanding action. Some restriction on certain types of automatic weapons or magazine size is most likely to be proposed, although more resources to crack down on the smuggling of these arms from the US would also be a good idea.

I am not going to pretend that either national security or public safety will be a top Liberal priority. It is also worth noting that Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale lost his seat, necessitating the appointment of a new minister, and we will see what vision the next head of Public Safety brings to the table. Yes, there are many challenges facing Canadians and it will not be easy to prioritise them. Still, is it not important to ensure a secure environment for all of us?

I think so and I hope the Liberals do as well.

Phil Gurski is the President of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He worked in Canadian intelligence for 32 years.