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Opinion Michael Wernick’s alarmist words are the politics of fear

Wesley Wark is a visiting research professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs

The politics of fear has just made an extraordinary appearance on Parliament Hill. The man who gave unexpected voice to it was none other than Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council Office, Ottawa’s top bureaucrat. Clerks are not usually public Cassandras, and for good reason.

Mr. Wernick, before he launched into his riveting testimony last Thursday on the SNC-Lavalin affair, told the House of Commons justice committee that he had something else on his mind. That something else was the national security of Canada.

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Mr. Wernick was speaking, he said, personally. From his bully pulpit, he told parliamentarians, “I’m deeply concerned about my country right now, its politics, and where it is headed.” His statement left many shaking their heads, although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later signalled his full support.

His catalogue of fears for Canada was extensive and shocking. It included foreign interference in the upcoming election, “the rising tide of incitements to violence,” the prospect of political assassination and killings in a election year, the besmirching of public reputations, the “vomitorium” of social-media discourse and a trend toward people losing faith in the governance of Canada.

Mr. Wernick went so far as to call attention to remarks made by a Conservative senator, David Tkachuk, in support of the recent “United We Roll” convoy of trucks in Ottawa, a protest action mostly focused on pipelines and energy sector jobs in Alberta but with some nastier fringe elements. Mr. Tkachuk had said he hoped the truckers would “roll over every Liberal left in the country.“ Mr. Wernick construed this statement as an incitement to murder, plain and simple. Mr. Tkachuck shot back by decrying such “manufactured outrage.” It has to be asked: Who had even noticed the senator’s remarks before the clerk handed him a megaphone?

The issues of foreign interference and right-wing extremism in Canada are ones that the security and intelligence agencies in Ottawa are tracking. But official statements from these agencies have been measured in tone and have not taken on the alarmist language used by Mr. Wernick. There has been no talk of a “rising tide of incitements to violence,” of political assassination, of social-media “vomitoriums."

The Communications Security Establishment has been given the chief responsibility for monitoring online election-interference. It has produced one report, released in 2017, that looked back to the 2015 election, where interference was slight, and noted both strengths and areas of potential vulnerability in the upcoming campaign. An updated report examining potential threats to the 2019 election is forthcoming.

The federal Public Safety Department’s latest annual report on the terrorism threat to Canada, released in December, 2018, noted that “traditionally, in Canada, violence linked to the far-right has been sporadic and opportunistic.”

Ralph Goodale, the Minister of Public Safety, promised in a recent speech that new legislative measures are on their way to tighten up the practices of social-media companies and social-media discourse. The word “vomitorium” was not used. More resources are being devoted to cybersecurity and fighting cybercrime.

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Canadian governments have typically been very careful to avoid a politics of fear, especially over national security. The motivation behind that approach has been crystal clear from the moment of former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s historic address on Parliament Hill in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks – to ensure that all Canadians felt safe in the continued expression of a multicultural, tolerant and lawful society, and to avoid the divisive excesses of U.S. political dialogue.

We do need a robust public conversation on national security. We don’t need fear-mongering. Greater review and accountability for our security and intelligence agencies will help. Some of that is already enshrined. Promises from the Liberal government of greater transparency on the national security file need to be followed-through on, and much more can be done to raise the level of public knowledge, including by security and intelligence agencies themselves.

But there remains a deep imperative never to allow for the importation of the style or substance of culture wars from other countries, notably the United States. Mr. Wernick clearly has the United States on his mind, and who can blame him. That does not deflect from the fact that any expressions of fears for public safety need to be measured, and supported by reporting and evidence from the security and intelligence agencies. They do not need to be emotive statements or channel-changing efforts on the part of senior public servants, easily read as partisan in an election year.

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