Canada’s security overhaul needs a comms makeover to match
The government is on the right path with Bill C-59, argues Stephanie Carvin, but it should improve the way it talks about threats.
Assistant professor, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
Last week the Liberal government took a major step towards fulfilling the promise made in its 2015 election platform to reform national security legislation with the tabling of Bill C-59. Early reviews have thus far been positive, but it is clear that at over 150 pages it will take a while for national security lawyers, experts and politicians to fully understand the implications of the bill.
While omnibus legislation has a bad reputation in government, Bill C-59 is a fascinating document in the way it seeks to overhaul our national security architecture and review mechanisms. It contains three separate acts and, if implemented, will alter another six. Moreover, this proposed restructuring has not been done in a half-hazard manner: the bill is woven together very well, with different sections referring to the other. For something so large it seems like a coherent whole.
As Bill C-59 is subjected to closer scrutiny throughout the summer, the release of the legislation raises two important yet broader points I think the government should consider for when the bill is debated in the House this fall.
First, the government should make clear what its vision of national security is through a policy statement. The day before the Defence Policy Review was released, earlier this month, it was given useful context from Minster of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland in her speech to the House of Commons. Her arguments regarding Canada’s need to defend itself and the international order from emerging threats in the wake of U.S. withdrawal helped to give meaning to the government’s approach.
The new and complex legislation in C-59 could use a similar introduction. What is Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s view of national security? What does he see as the main and emerging threats to Canada under his portfolio? How did he and the department come to make the decisions they did and how will those keep us safer?
In most cases a discussion of policy decisions and priorities might not be interesting to many Canadians. But Bill C-59 follows a successful consultation strategy that engaged thousands of Canadians on three issues: a Committee of Parliamentarians (established via Bill C-22), a “Green Paper” that presented several major national security questions to the Canadian public (a report on the results can be found here) and a cyber consultation — the results of which are still to be determined. (And that is if you do not count the relevant bits, especially cyber, in the Defence Policy Review consultations.
As such, there are already a number of Canadians who have a vested interest in this legislation. Moreover, as noted above, the contents of the bill are very thoughtful and it seems clear that in the drafting of the bill there was a process and procedure for coming to decisions. What was it? What were the hardest choices? An explanation of these issues would not only benefit experts, but all Canadians.
Second, between the Bill C-22 Committee and C-59, there are a whole host of reports that will be produced which will inform Canadians on how their government conducts national security investigations. Canadians will be told about the numbers of authorities and reviews. However, what Canadians are still not being told is what national security threats are. In this sense, Canadians might be confident the system is working, but not what it is working on; they will know process but not the actual threats.
It would be absurd to argue that transparency means opening the state’s coffers of intelligence, or that national security agencies should publish highly classified information. At the same time, there is much in the public domain that can be publicly stated.
Presently, the only multi-agency annual report on threats to Canada is the “Public Report on the Terrorist Threat” coordinated by Public Safety, but this only focuses on terrorism. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) used to put out an annual report of threat-related activity. It then became bi-annual and last year it was a video of an uncomfortable-looking CSIS director reading a list of threats in his office. Frankly, Canadians deserve better.
Instead, there are two models that the government could look to in terms of better informing Canadians of national security threats. First is the annual U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence Worldwide Threat Assessment report. It is a very plain, useful 20-something page summary of threats to the United States. A second model is the recent report on cyber threats to Canada’s election system and democratic institutions by the Communications Security Establishment. It is a short, simple and clear report that dissects the risk and threats to Canada in plain language, and was incredibly useful.
This is not a call for transparency for transparency's sake — an informed public will hopefully have more trust in its security services. The Trudeau government has drafted an overhaul of Canadian national security agencies and how they function. Now it must also overhaul the way it communicates these issues to Canadians.