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Thomas Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. From 2019 to 2022, he was the co-chair of the National Security Transparency Advisory Group, an independent body that advises Canada’s intelligence community on measures to enhance transparency.

In early November, Justice Marie-Josée Hogue issued a statement confirming that the independent inquiry into foreign interference in Canada’s elections and democratic institutions that she chairs is in the process of hiring staff and setting up its office. In working toward producing a final report by December, 2024, the commissioner pledged to make available as much information as possible to the public.

This is essential, but it will be a challenge: the national security community in Canada has a deeply entrenched tradition of hoarding information. It is true that much information held by national security agencies cannot be made available to the public for fear of disclosing sources and methods or damaging foreign relations. But it is equally true that the Canadian government suffers from an epidemic of overclassification: much information that is classified could be released with little or no damage.

Many, especially in the national security world, assume that more transparency must come at the expense of national security; democratic governments, in this view, must strike a balance between the two. This is a false assumption, however: when properly wielded, transparency is one of the most powerful tools that democracies have to promote national security, and a major advantage that they hold relative to their non-democratic adversaries. It is a tool that they would benefit from wielding much more assertively in their struggle against China, Russia, Iran and other rivals.

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A lack of transparency, for example, contributes to creating an information vacuum. Hostile actors, as we have clearly seen in recent years, are then eager to exploit this vacuum by filling it with disinformation. Better communication with the public is thus an essential tool that democracies have been underutilizing to counter one of the main threats to their national security and social fabric, disinformation. A stubborn lack of transparency basically handicaps our ability to mount optimal responses.

Transparency is also an essential enabler of accountability. In the absence of transparency, civil society, the media and opposition parties have less reliable information in hand and are therefore hobbled in their ability to hold the government to account and to shine a light on weaknesses in our defences. This is a recipe for stagnation and continued neglect of our national security institutions and capabilities, which have not kept up with a deteriorating threat environment. Transparency, in other words, is not only essential for democratic health; it is also, again, an underutilized tool to boost national security.

Canada’s culture of secrecy on foreign threats puts our citizens at risk

Finally, while this lack of transparency is certainly not the only cause of the pervasive and damaging lack of trust that many Canadians have in their democratic institutions, it contributes to it. National security alarm bells should be ringing: this lack of trust damages societal resilience, which is one of the first lines of defence against many of the threats that Canada faces today, from economic espionage to transnational repression and electoral meddling.

To deal with these threats, national security agencies increasingly need to work beyond their traditional partners, and reach out to provincial and municipal levels of government, the private sector, civil society and academia. This lack of trust makes the development of these relations more difficult, implying again that collective defences are weaker than they could be. This hurts the development of what should be whole-of-society responses to the threats that Canada faces, and creates or increases openings for hostile actors to exploit these vulnerabilities.

The Hogue commission has an essential role to play. It cannot undo decades of poor national security transparency performance. But by setting the bar high, it can impose powerful precedents. This will not be easy, as the commission will need to overcome entrenched interests and a culture that continues to privilege excessive secrecy. The benefits to Canada’s national security, however, would be significant.

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