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federal budget 2016

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (C) and Finance Minister Bill Morneau (R) walk from Trudeau's office to the House of Commons to deliver the budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, March 22, 2016.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Federal security agencies in Canada say they are being run off their feet trying to keep up with jihadis. But experts say these agencies are going to have to make do with what funding they have, for the foreseeable future.

That's because the Liberal budget announced Tuesday provided no significant top-ups to operational funding for security agencies, beyond new funding for cybersecurity and "counter-radicalization" that followed campaign pledges.

What this means is that harder times may be ahead for the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and other agencies operating under the umbrella of Public Safety Canada.

Records show the department spent $4.3-billion in 2005, but $8.5-billion in 2015. In unadjusted terms, that's a doubling of taxpayer dollars invested in security over the course of a decade, almost all of it coinciding with former prime minister Stephen Harper's time in office.

Yet while the Conservative government prided itself on doubling down on counter-terrorism campaigns, the Liberals have signalled they will try different approaches.

Given a political landscape like that, Canada's security agencies "were happy if they weren't cut in this budget," said Christian Leuprecht, a professor at Royal Military College.

"The concern was that it could have been more challenging."

Pointing out that the Liberals are still mulling their stance on many specific security issues, Mr. Leuprecht added that no one should associate more funding with more security. "We don't have metrics on whether what we're doing is working. If we spent half as much, would we be half as safe? If we spent twice as much, would we be twice as safe?"

Even so, in recent months, the leaders of the RCMP and CSIS have openly said that they have a glaring resource problem. In fact, they are engaging in investigative triage, starving other important investigations to deal with Canadians' concerns about the prospect of jihadi terrorism.

The security agencies are locked onto all possible threats posed by scores of Canadian extremists – the "high-risk travellers" looking to join war zones, the "foreign fighters" who have made it overseas and the "returnees" who have come back with intentions unknown.

While all of this is shaping up to be a chronic, long-term threat, police operations are being staffed like it is an extraordinary, short-term one. "I've not seen a tempo and pace of [counter-terrorism] operations like this. … It is an unprecedented alignment of our resources to address that," RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told a parliamentary committee earlier this month.

The top Mountie has frequently spoken about pulling detectives off of Mafia investigations to staff holes in the terrorism file.

In February, a federal report said that CSIS is also grappling with a "greatly increased volume of potential targets." It added that other intelligence focuses, including investigations into foreign espionage or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, risk falling by the wayside.

Legislation passed last year also gave CSIS a new job: increased legal latitude to engage in "threat reduction activities" that would have the effect of quietly stopping terrorism in its tracks. But the budget does not contemplate giving CSIS more money to do this sort of work.

The federal security agencies will be receiving some money for capital projects – for example, $60-million toward a new RCMP forensic laboratory in Surrey, B.C., and more funds to refurbish other buildings.

But that won't help operations. And Mr. Leuprecht, who has written essays about runaway police funding, said it ultimately falls on federal security officials to find smarter ways to organize themselves.

"We have been cannibalizing everything else, especially organized crime, to get a handle on the extremist threats. That's not a function of enough money in the system. It's a function of how the RCMP operates," he said.

He said the Mounties and other security agencies will have to cease doing the investigative equivalent of fighting fires, and think about how they are going carve out specialists to do the job over the longer term.

"My argument is it's not about piling on new money, it's making sure people have the right tool kits to do the job."