One of the great Canadian novels of the 20th century was Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan. It is the story of the troubles between Canada’s two European founding nations – the French and the English (both had been preceded by the First Nations thousands of years earlier). The phrase “two solitudes” has entered Canadian English as a synopsis of the relations between the English and the French. Different languages, different backgrounds, different cultures, different ways of seeing the world.
I couldn’t help but think of this as I sat in a meeting room last Friday in the offices of the Canadian chapter of the Internet Society in Ottawa. I had been invited to a discussion on the intersections of rights and freedoms and the controversial C-51, a bill that significantly increases some of the powers and capabilities of Canada’s security and law enforcement agencies.
I was the only person with any experience in those latter organisations (CSIS and CSE). The others in attendance were privacy advocates and lawyers. It was of no surprise to me that these participants, after paying what I saw as “lip service” to the necessity that our spies and cops have the tools to stop threats like terrorism, were uniformly critical of any more capabilities. I found myself time and time again disagreeing with their comments and realised how woefully ignorant they were of what CSIS and the RCMP do and how they do it (as well as why).
And yet I could not be overly critical of their lack of knowledge. The fact is that the CSIS’ and the RCMPs of this world do a terrible job of explaining to average citizens why they need the accesses they do. In the absence of understanding comes a lack of trust and a lack of trust leads to further lack of understanding. There has to be a better way.
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here: Canadians deserve more from the agencies tasked with protecting them. We need to know what the threats are and what if anything we can do about them. We need to better comprehend what those agencies are up against and what is lacking in their toolkit.
Aside from any discussion on sources or methods, in addition of course to ongoing sensitive investigations, CSIS and the RCMP can and should be more open with what is out there. Regular papers and briefings, general enough not to be a hindrance to their tasks, should be made available. Regarding the “slippery slope” argument (i.e. if CSIS opens the door a crack more and more requests will be made of it), there is a simple answer. CSIS and the RCMP can make it crystal clear that they will provide us a glimpse of what they know and no more.
The questions and challenges we discussed last Friday are valid and ones about which more dialogue is a good thing. We need to stop talking past one another and start talking to one another. The current threat scenario is serious and requires a more adult conversation. It would be great to have all the players in that conversation.