Canada’s public safety minister suggested Thursday at least one of the protesters arrested at an Alberta blockade on weapons changes had spent “some time” at the Ottawa protests.
The federal government has suggested there is coordination between the convoys that have blockaded international border crossings and those that have paralyzed downtown Ottawa in recent weeks.
Speaking to Global News Thursday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino cited “public reports” to suggest at least one protester at the Coutts blockade was also present in Ottawa’s occupation.
“We are starting to see more and more public reports that show that those individuals who were a part of the Coutts illegal blockade also had spent some time in Ottawa,” Mendicino said in an interview.
“That’s in the public domain. Again, as to anything else that police and intelligence may be doing, those functions will be exercised independently of the government.”
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In documents released late Wednesday evening, the government suggested the ongoing protests have become a magnet of “anti-government and anti-authority, anti-vaccination, conspiracy theory and white supremacist groups throughout Canada and other Western countries.”
The government also suggested that ex-police and ex-military members were providing security and logistics support for the blockade.
On Thursday, Canadian journalist Justin Ling, writing in the Guardian newspaper, reported that internal government documents suggested it was “likely” the convoy protests had been infiltrated by far-right extremist groups.
It was the first firm indication that Canadian intelligence agencies had been aware of extremist elements co-opting legitimate protests.
A Feb. 8 assessment by the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre — which includes the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) — reviewed by Global News states “the convergence of legitimate protest with ideological extremism both online and in cities across the country presents a possible trigger point and opportunity for potential lone actor attackers to conduct a terrorism attack.”
The integrated terrorism unit assessed that the likelihood of a coordinated attack against Parliament, legislatures and government buildings remained small, but that “ideological-motivated violent extremism” actors could use “readily-available” weapons like knives, firearms, or vehicles against “soft” targets like counter-protesters.
Asked if he believes the allegedly coordinated behaviour from extremist groups at blockades across the country rises to the level of domestic terrorism, Mendicino said the government is concerned about the “tactics, the timing and the targets” of the protests.
“If you take a look at where the illegal blockades are interrupting trade and travel, they’re all at major ports of entry, so that’s concerning,” Mendicino said.
“When you overlay the rhetoric that is now rampant and being attributed to some of the organizers of the illegal blockades … it certainly seems very ideologically-motivated and extreme.”
But national security observers are not yet convinced the government had to resort to emergency powers to address the blockades.
Leah West and Michael Nesbitt, both lawyers who focus on national security matters, have expressed skepticism the blockades — including the Ottawa occupation — couldn’t be dealt with without a declaration of emergency.
“Now they’re saying the terrorist threat of the far-right in Canada has risen to a threat to the security of our country, such that it threatens our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Nesbitt said in an interview Thursday.
“So we have gotten to the point where they’re saying it’s a threat to our territorial integrity, and a threat to the security of Canada, and yet we’ve never seen a pre-emptive arrest,” Nesbitt added, referring to a common law enforcement measure for terrorism suspects.
It’s important to note that the alleged extremists who have latched onto the convoy protests have not been subtle or secretive when it comes to their beliefs and objectives.
Stephanie Carvin, a former CSIS analyst who now teaches at Carleton University, said that while law enforcement has been successful in clearing out blockades at international borders, their language suggests the threat is increasing rather than abating.
“Everything in this (government) document is pointing to an increasing threat,” Carvin said in an interview.
“I think what they’re saying is that … this is not a movement that is slowing down, this is a movement that is in some ways gaining speed.”