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Is there a terrorist threat at Canada’s borders through illegal immigration?

As we mark Canada Day today it is a good time to reflect on who and what we are as a nation.  We are made up of people from all corners of the world even if we were taught in elementary school (at least I seem to remember that I was) that Canada was ‘discovered’ by the English and the French: the two ‘Founding Nations’.  There was nary a mention of the First Nations back then and even if there remain serious issues with our original inhabitants – issues that we really need to pay attention to – we finally acknowledge much better the contribution that they made, make and will continue to make to our land.

We tend to wear the fact that we are a nation of immigrants as a badge of pride in Canada, although there were times when newcomers were horribly treated (the Chinese head tax of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the incarceration of Japanese Canadians among others during WWII, the current racist undercurrent demonstrated by some in Quebec towards immigrants, etc.).

It is this last one that leads me to weigh in on the nexus – if there is one – between immigration and national security, for that is the argument some make to justify why they don’t like to see the illegal migration at our non-official border crossings with the US (especially in Quebec).  This view is mirrored by a certain US President who labelled Mexicans as ‘rapists, criminals and drug dealers’ during the 2016 election campaign.  It is a simplistic view that equates immigrants with ‘undesirables’, thus demanding a crackdown on all immigration (since, I guess, we cannot tell the good immigrants from the bad ones).

To be fair there is some truth to this position.  Yes, a few people who happen to be immigrants do go on to commit crimes of one nature or another: the rate of incidence is not zero.  And yet the question remains whether these ‘criminals’ engage in illegal or violent behaviour because they were already of that ilk before they arrived or whether their acts occurred well after their establishment in Canada and were thus attributable to other factors. Nor has a study been done that I am aware of (although there have to be several) comparing the rate of criminality of immigrants and those fortunate enough to have been born here.

Nevertheless the impression persists and needs to be addressed.  To my mind it is quite clear that when it comes to immigration and the most serious form of crime – i.e. violent extremism or terrorism – the numbers are shockingly low.  During my time at CSIS it turned out that the vast majority of those who planned or committed acts of terrorism in our country were born and radicalised here, not in the ‘usual places’ one associates with terrorism (Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, etc.).  So even if they did arrive as immigrants their transformations took place in Canada (i.e. they did not emigrate with terrorism ‘on the brain’).  These are facts, not opinions.

It is useful to remind Canadians that when our government does come across files of individuals whose backgrounds do pose potential threats there are mechanisms to prevent them from coming here in the first place.  The agencies we put our faith in to protect us – CSIS, the RCMP, Canada Border Services (CBSA) and Citizenship and Immigration (CIC) – all have large efforts, both here and in Canadian representations abroad – to identify risks and to recommend that those that pose them not be allowed to travel to Canada.  If some sneak through there are also mechanisms to deport them, although this system does not work that well all the time (and don’t get me started on the abysmal National Security Certificate process – abysmal not because of the lack of effort by CSIS and CIC by the way).  We are thus well equipped to protect Canada and Canadians from the dangers presented by those few criminals and terrorists who seek to join the rest in becoming part of this wondrous land.

We must tell ourselves constantly what immigration has given us, not to mention the fact that every single Canadian who is not First Nation is an immigrant, albeit some more longstanding than others.  We are a rich, vibrant nation BECAUSE of immigration, not despite it.  Challenges will arise as they have historically (anyone remember the thousands of Vietnamese boat people we successfully helped become Canadian even if there were naysayers at the time?  Yesterday’s Vietnamese were today’s Syrians) but we will deal with them.  No, it will not be perfect and yes there will be some bad apples in the bunch.  But in a land that thrives on immigration, setting aside the reality that our ‘native’ birthrate  is probably under replacement levels, we need immigration to continue.  We can argue about the rate of new arrivals but not about the necessity to welcome new arrivals.

On a personal note, my grandparents (both the Gurskis and the Kozlyks) came to Canada in the early 20th century from Eastern Europe.  I cannot imagine what that was like nor what racism they endured (there is a story that I cannot confirm that my maternal Ukrainian grandfather was interned as an enemy of the state during WWI).  As late as the 1940s my father was refused a job because of his last name.  Much of that thankfully is behind us, current warts notwithstanding.  This nation is what it is thanks to the decisions of millions to make it their new home. Our new neighbours do not pose a threat to the rest of us but rather a gift.

What better day than Canada Day to recognise this?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of five books on terrorism.

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