This piece appeared in The Hill Times on December 3, 2018.
Way back in medieval times there was a concept known as sanctuary. Under this notion, those who had committed crimes could place themselves beyond the long arm of the law by hightailing it to a church or monastery, where supposedly divine law trumped the more worldly version. In pop culture a good example of this was the declaration of ‘Sanctuary!’ by Quasimodo when he rescued Esmeralda who was about to be burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft in the Walt Disney animated movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Foreign embassies serve a similar purpose as we see in the case of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who has been holed up at the Ecuadorean mission in London for more than half a decade, thereby avoiding going to trial in Sweden on rape charges.
I suppose in a post-religious world the notion that someone fleeing the law for whatever reason can simply go into a church and thereby be out of the reach of authorities would strike many as anachronistic. To cite another Victor Hugo work, Les Miserables, Inspector Javert stated “Right or wrong, the law is the law and it must be obeyed to the letter.” Sounds good to me.
So what do we do then with our security intelligence services? Should CSIS have restrictions placed on its activities, beyond what the CSIS Act outlines? Should certain parts of Canada be placed outside the CSIS mandate?
Well, it sure sounds to me like some Canadians want exactly this to happen. In a recent article on the Vice News Web site many Canadian Muslims complained about CSIS (and RCMP) activities on university campuses, especially MSAs (Muslim Student Associations), which some see as ‘sanctuaries’ from everyday Islamophobia. This perceived discrimination and surveillance has led to fear and alienation apparently. It goes without saying that for those who attend our colleges and universities and who happen to hail from countries such as Iraq or Syria (among others), having the security service show up and ask questions can be unnerving at a minimum.
So, should these venues be off limits to CSIS? In a word, no.
CSIS is authorised under Canadian law to investigate threats to national security and public safety wherever there are reasonable grounds to suspect such a threat exists. Our spy agency is like an early warning system, entitled to collect information and advise government about threats before they metastasise into something bigger: that is why our laws distinguish between reasonable grounds to suspect (intelligence) vs reasonable grounds to believe (evidence leading to possible criminal prosecution).
Why then would CSIS have reasonable grounds to ask questions on university campuses? How many examples do you want? Three University of Manitoba students radicalised in part on campus and left Canada to fight with Al Qaeda (two are now probably dead and a third, a US citizen, is in jail); John Maguire was a University of Ottawa student before he left to fight (and die) with Islamic State; two former Algonquin College students with ties to that institution’s MSA have been charged with terrorism (Khadar Khalib and Awso Peshdary). On occasion the radicalisation process begins even before post secondary education: many of the infamous Toronto 18 began their journey to terrorism while still at Meadowvale High School in the GTA.
I am not implying that MSAs or any other group of Canadian Muslims who attend school are hubs of violent radicalisation. Based on my years at CSIS nevertheless, while the vast majority of Canadian Muslims are fully integrated proud Canadians, a small number do embrace violent Islamist extremist ideas and go on to plan attacks here or abroad, and that process unfolds in part while they are in school. We have an obligation to identify and neutralise these individuals before they act and if they happen to be studying while this is developing, then off to school go CSIS and the RCMP.
There is no question that both agencies can always get better at what they do and how they interact with communities, Muslim or otherwise. But to say that campuses should act as sanctuaries for those who threaten public safety is a daft idea and one that I doubt will gain any traction in Canada. This quasi-paranoiac mode of thinking has no place in our national security realm.