Navaid Aziz is the director of public relations for AlMaghrib Canada, and serves as an imam in Calgary. Stephanie Carvin is an associate professor at Carleton University and a former national security analyst.
A significant yet quiet shift has taken place in Canada’s focus of its national security threat environment. After 20 years of emphasis on extremism inspired by al-Qaeda and Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State), espionage, foreign interference and cyber-threats have become the country’s top concerns.
In 2018, CSIS director David Vigneault signalled the move in a speech at the Economic Club of Canada, where he named foreign spying and interference as the “greatest threat to our prosperity and national interest.” His agency’s latest annual Public Report then ranked espionage as Canada’s primary national security threat for the first time in 20 years.
It’s hard to argue against the agency’s priorities. But it’s also hard not to ask whether relegating violent extremism to a lower tier leaves some unfinished business. What has the intelligence and national security community learned from two decades of counterterrorism policies, which saw the expansion of Canada’s security apparatus, including augmenting its agencies and laws? Have we assessed what mistakes were made, or the effect that those policies had on surveilled communities?
In the wake of the attack in London, Ont., and amid ongoing violence against hijab-wearing Muslim women, it is time to ask hard questions. The unfortunate truth is that neither the Canadian government nor national security agencies are particularly great at generating “lessons learned.” Almost all of the reflections on Canada’s actions in countering terrorism since 9/11 have come in the wake of egregious failures, such as the official inquiries into the detention and torture of Canadians held abroad, or court cases that sought to force the government to protect Canadians, like that of Omar Khadr in Guantanamo.
Some insight has come from reports by the Auditor General and various review and oversight agencies. However, these have mainly examined performance or compliance issues. There has been no public reckoning of what has happened in two decades of countering what has often been portrayed as the pervasive threat from the extremism that dominated the file.
Public reflection and transparent testimony would offer an official opportunity to hear the concerns already being expressed by some communities. We should not underestimate the trauma experienced by those who have been constantly pulled aside, questioned and delayed from flights, held at the border or had their contacts questioned just because they may have attended a large community event. Many have also expressed their frustration around visits to homes or workplaces that caused further panic and suspicion by colleagues and neighbours. These individuals deserve the opportunity to present their experiences publicly and to the government beyond the few formal avenues that exist.
Unpacking the impact of these institutionalized “routines” and “best practices” on those who disproportionately experienced them can help national security agencies build better community engagement practices moving ahead, and update understandings of different communities and their role as times change. Concerns about new threats such as clandestine foreign influence will require national security engagement with different communities, and so learning how to better do this kind of work is important; we need to ensure that new threats are not managed with old and potentially flawed practices. Importantly, such an exercise will lead to better information exchanges, as intelligence from people who feel secure and validated will always be higher-quality than that which comes from a place of fear and manipulation. And given the establishment of government, community-driven and grassroots initiatives to counter extremism, affected communities should have the opportunity to share which of these actions (if any) they felt comfortable with, were seen as non-invasive or were particularly effective.
Meaningful discussion about the impact of national security practices could also go some way toward establishing or building back trust in the places where it has been damaged. Trust continues to be the social license that national security agencies in democracies require, and while some may hope that time will simply heal all wounds, the process cannot begin without sincere efforts at understanding.
Such a process, if it is implemented, would not be starting from scratch. Academics have done research on the attitudes of the Muslim community toward the national security community for years, and their work can help inform how this might be accomplished. Additionally, it would be most effective to not just solicit testimony, but also hold roundtables that put an emphasis on dialogue and discussion. Effort should be made to document experiences for future research, too. And while accountability is important, the emphasis should be on generating meaningful and practical lessons learned.
Ideally, such an exercise will help generate and instill a “learning culture” within the Canadian national security community – something that is needed to help it learn and change, but will not happen if we continually look ahead without looking back.
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