What’s next for Canada’s approach to terrorism?

As Canadians ask whether the recent attack in Québec City should be considered terrorism, Michael Tierney looks at the latest developments in Canada’s counter-terrorism policies. 

By: /
February 6, 2017
Aaron Driver
An image of Aaron Driver is projected on a screen during a news conference with Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Deputy Commissioner Mike Cabana (L) and Assistant Commissioner Jennifer Strachan in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, August 11, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Last fall, the Canadian government released a Green Paper on national security, entitled Our Security, Our Rights. It was released, unsurprisingly, just after Public Safety Canada’s latest Terrorism Report, which outlined existing and future trends in the terrorist threat to Canada.  

As the title indicates, this Green Paper seeks to improve security while protecting civil liberties guaranteed to Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Accordingly, the document discusses challenges such as preventing radicalization, disrupting threats and sharing information, alongside issues such as accountability for security institutions, legal limitations on investigations and civil rights.  

Canadians were able to provide input to the policy process in a number of ways, including discussion via Public Safety Canada’s website and by attending town hall sessions across the country. Public input ended on Dec. 1, and the government is now in the process of drafting new legislation, policies and programs that would incorporate some of the ideas that emerged during the Green Paper consultation process.  

The results will be important. Canada enacted its first ever National Security Policy in 2004 and has since augmented it in documents such as its first Counter-terrorism Strategy, which came out in 2012. Yet given the changing nature of terrorism amidst an ongoing public interest in the issue, and recent legislative changes that include the enactment of Bill C-51, the need to review national security in Canada is more pressing than ever. 

The recent consultation — and its policy outcomes, which are expected sometime in 2017 — will likely change the course of security in Canada for the next several years. Here are three points Canadians should be considering as the policy process moves forward:

1. The definition, tools and perpetrators of terrorism have evolved significantly.

When the 2004 National Security Policy was created, Canada was pre-occupied primarily with international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. While security agencies admitted that there were known linkages to these groups in Canada, there was relatively little knowledge or concern with homegrown violent extremism at the time. In 2012, homegrown extremism became a much more significant threat under the Counter-terrorism Strategy. In each successive Terrorism Report (there have been three), homegrown sources of terrorism have come to play a central part in Canada’s counter-terrorism lexicon. There are now issues surrounding Canadians conducting attacks at home, such as in the case of the 2014 Ottawa shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, and Canadians moving overseas to fight alongside groups such as the Islamic State. There has also been discussion in the wake of the Jan. 29 shooting at a Québec City mosque about how terrorism is defined in Canada, and how it is applied as a legal doctrine. (Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder while police consider terrorism-related charges, CBC reports.)

There are also concerns that foreign fighters returning home will be able to propagate violence and recruit others to their cause. Further, there are emerging issues such as the roles which females play in terrorism activities, and the use of the Internet to engage in terrorist acts.    

Canadians will need to consider that gender-focused counter-terrorism strategies may be required to effectively deal with threats. There will also need to be a serious discussion about how social media companies work with the Canadian government to identify and prevent online terrorist activities. In addition, there may need to be resources or training given to security professionals to detect violent extremist behaviour on the Internet.  

There also needs to be discussion surrounding the use of the term terrorist “threat.” As it stands, the threat is mostly discussed in the context of those who conduct or attempt attacks. However, there have been cases of terrorist sympathizers conducting criminal activities in Canada, including extortion, human trafficking and drug trafficking, to support their organizations. It could easily be argued that these activities pose a much larger, more robust threat to the Canadian public. Perhaps an effective way to move forward is to increase focus on the activities that support terrorists, rather than just prevention of the attacks themselves. In a similar vein, further attention also must be given to the de-radicalization of violent extremists, in order to prevent harm to those individuals and others, moving into the future. 

2. New legislation should be paired with new review bodies and prevention tools.

Undeniably, Canada’s latest anti-terrorism legislation (Bill C-51, now called the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015) has given rise to a great amount of controversy. Under the legislation, the information sharing capacity amongst federal government bodies has been heightened, thresholds for preventative arrest have been lessened, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has been given a greater ability to conduct foreign operations and the capacity to disrupt terrorist activities in motion.  

The recent consultation process seems to indicate a desire to move towards increased accountability for security institutions with new capabilities in Canada. In this regard, Canada would likely benefit from an integrated accountability mechanism to oversee national security operations. This level of oversight has already been encouraged by scholars and former prime ministers, as it would allow for the review of all national security bodies in Canada. Such a mechanism would have the benefit of assuring Canadians that their civil rights are protected, while likely also improving counter-terrorism efforts. After C-51 was enacted in 2015, reports showed that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were wary of agencies like CSIS operating abroad and potentially impacting existing police relationships with overseas institutions. However, CSIS also has a responsibility to conduct investigations to protect Canadians from security threats. In a globalized world, this means that it needs to be able to move abroad in certain instances.  

An integrated review body would likely make it easier for agencies to work together, both at home and abroad, to protect Canada. Information could be shared more readily, and resources could be more successfully pooled, without fear over how information or resources are being used by partner agencies. These efforts could then lead to an improved intelligence-to-evidence process, and fill gaps in the investigative process, to prevent terrorists from harming Canadians.  

For example, the Auditor General found that security agencies in Canada were not disseminating intelligence effectively, due to concerns about legal repercussions for sharing information. Even though it was determined that agencies had the legal ability to share needed information on potential threats, they were not doing so. An integrated review body would be able to alleviate legal considerations on information sharing, since they would be responsible for ensuring that intelligence is disseminated as required while protecting individual rights and freedoms.  

Finally, the peace bond process — which is currently used to restrict violent extremists from further engaging in terrorist-related activities, and from actually conducting attacks — needs to be re-visited. Peace bonds are issued by judges or justices of the peace in Canada and place restrictions on the activities of the defendant for a set period of time. Given recent cases such as Aaron Driver, who had been placed under a peace bond but still managed to procure bomb-making materials and attempt an attack in Ontario in August, further consideration must be given to the measures put in place within the peace bond issuance in order to prevent violent extremism. Alternatives could include increased check-ups by police, improved mental health counselling programs, or further guidance by community leaders to de-radicalize potential offenders.  

3. Terrorism is but one national security concern.

Tellingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, September’s Green Paper focused heavily on terrorism. This focus is in line with previous policies and strategies enacted under the national security banner. However, Canadians should also consider, and emphasize, that terrorism is but one national security concern. Foreign and economic espionage, nuclear proliferation, Arctic sovereignty, extreme climate events and belligerent state actors such as Russia also pose a security threat to Canada in a number of ways, and should be discussed as a part of any future national security plans Canada introduces to protect itself in an unstable world.  

While terrorism is a constant threat, there are other issues which could negatively impact Canada and its interests moving forward. A measuring of the entire security threat environment in Canada would be useful to ensure that Canadians will be protected, and to help the public assess the severity and priority of various threats against them in the years to come.