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Canada ‘not ready’ for growing national security threats, former officials warn

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The Canadian government is not ready to handle an increasingly dangerous national security environment, a report by former senior national security officials warn.

It’s the latest in a series of increasingly vocal warnings that Ottawa’s national security framework is not prepared to deal with the challenges of modern security threats, including economic espionage, foreign interference in domestic politics and cyber attacks.

Read more: Extremists saw 2021 federal election as an ‘opportunity’ to plan violence: CSIS

The report, assembled by the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, drew from the experience of recent national security officials and asserted the Canadian public and government rarely take security issues seriously.

“Canada is not ready to face this new world,” the report starkly warns.

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“As a country, we urgently need to rethink national security. … (The report delivers) the underlying message that governments must have the courage to look at national security issues beyond today’s news cycle or the next election.”

The report canvassed a former national security advisor to the prime minister, former directors of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and former foreign policy advisors to the government.

“It’s a dangerous world. Canada, not just its governments, but its people writ large, have not always taken national security seriously,” said Vincent Rigby, who advised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on national security issues, in an interview with Global News.

“I’m not sure that the threat is really coming home to Canadians at the moment. … There are all these threats out there. We need a comprehensive strategy to deal with all that. And so it’s a strategy for the government, the bureaucrats, the Canadian Armed Forces, others. I think it’s a strategy for Canadians, to articulate to Canadians the threat, how dangerous that threat is right now and how they have to play a part as well.”

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The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has been pushing for increased powers to deal with rising national security threats. CSIS Director David Vigneault has highlighted both threats to economic security, including stealing research from Canadian universities and private businesses, as well as increased threats from domestic extremists in recent public comments.

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At the same time, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has been warning of increased cyber espionage during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: Extremism, hateful rhetoric becoming ‘normalized’ in Canada, spy agency head warns

Both agencies have taken unprecedented steps to reach out to the private sector and universities during the pandemic. At the same time, CSIS has drastically reallocated resources to address the rising threat of “ideologically-motivated domestic extremism,” the intelligence community’s catch-all term that includes far-right and anti-authority violence.

An undercurrent in the report, Rigby and co-organizer Thomas Juneau acknowledge, is the instability in the United States, Canada’s closest security ally and the world’s largest military force, which has acted as a guarantor of Canadian security since the end of the Second World War.

“The U.S. is and will remain for the foreseeable future our closest ally. That’s not going to change, at least for now. But there are serious reasons to be concerned,” said Juneau, who is also a professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in national security and foreign relations issues.

“We see it, for example, with growing transnational ties between right-wing extremists in Canada and in the U.S. We saw it very clearly at the time of the protests in Ottawa and elsewhere in the country where there were ideological exchanges, monetary support, political encouragement, not only from other right-wing extremist individuals or groups in the U.S., but in some cases from U.S. hard conservative media, Fox News and from U.S. politicians.”

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“This is a serious problem for Canada,” Juneau added. “It’s not something that we’re used to dealing with, not something that we’re used to thinking about.”

Rigby, Juneau and their co-authors stress that the Canadian government needs to rethink the country’s security posture now rather than wait for a major incident on Canadian soil.

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The report also stressed the need for the Canadian security and intelligence community to be more open with the press, who gather information for the public, and with groups like universities and research institutions who have increasingly been the target of espionage.

Rigby, who recently held the top job in Canada’s national security system, said the community must be much more open with the public to get them to take the threats seriously.

“If you want everybody rowing in the same direction, if you want everybody to really understand the threat and know that this is serious stuff, you have to be open with them,” Rigby said.

“I’m not sure the average Canadian understands just how serious the threat is right now. But also give them the information, the intelligence if you want, to actually respond.”

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