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The Canadian Security Intelligence Service hired EKOS Research Associates to survey the public’s attitudes toward the agency, which is responsible for conducting foreign interference and influence operations, and for countering spying and terrorism.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A poll commissioned by Canada’s spy agency early last year found that a slight majority of Canadians are opposed to expanding the powers of police and intelligence agencies.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service hired EKOS Research Associates to survey the public’s attitudes toward the agency, which is responsible for conducting foreign interference and influence operations, and for countering spying and terrorism.

When asked if police and intelligence agencies should have more powers to carry out security operations, even if the boost in authority came at the cost of personal privacy, 52 per cent of respondents said they disagreed with the idea. Another 32 per cent said they agreed, and 13 per cent said they neither agreed nor disagreed.

Younger people were more likely to oppose providing more powers to police and intelligence agencies. More than 60 per cent of respondents under the age of 35 said they disagreed with the idea.

EKOS surveyed 1,204 Canadians between Feb. 1 and Feb. 17. The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. A report on the results was posted on the federal government’s website in March, 2021.

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The fact that respondents were wary of expanded police and intelligence powers isn’t surprising, said Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and co-chair of the National Security Transparency Advisory Group.

“Whenever there’s resistance, the onus is on the national security community to be more transparent and to explain what the problem is,” Prof. Juneau said. Ensuring the public can understand why additional powers are necessary and how they will be used is an essential aspect of transparency, he added.

The laws that give Canada’s spy agencies their investigative powers are in many cases decades old, and some of them predate the internet. On a case-by-case basis, Prof. Juneau said, it sometimes makes sense to grant additional powers as the threat environment changes. But, he argued, these decisions can’t be made while leaving the public in the dark.

When the poll’s respondents were asked if they were more concerned about ideologically motivated violent extremism, such as white supremacy, as opposed to religious extremism from groups like ISIS, a majority (53 per cent) said ideological violence was more worrying to them. Another 33 per cent of respondents said religious extremism was a bigger concern, and 14 per cent said they were unsure.

This corresponds with a similar uptick in concern in the national security community about white nationalism and other domestic threats, according to Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University.

“I think national security agencies understand there’s a bit more urgency here, and that national security tools might actually be required to solve the problem,” she said.

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CSIS remains relatively unknown to many Canadians. When asked to name the organization responsible for investigating threats to the country, just three in 10 of the poll’s respondents were able to correctly identify the agency.

A similar survey conducted in 2018 also found that three in 10 respondents were unable to name CSIS.

Wesley Wark, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a Waterloo, Ont.-based think tank, said the Canadian public’s unfamiliarity with CSIS poses a “genuine problem.”

Prof. Wark said Canadians have a limited understanding of contemporary national security threats and the work of security agencies in the country, mostly because of a lack of public discussion.

“Part of the reason why we don’t have better transparency and better public knowledge is that our political leaders have been unprepared to deliver it,” he said.

Prof. Wark said he thinks the government has a responsibility to better inform Canadians, possibly by releasing a national security strategy.

“There’s not enough public education, there’s not enough transparency, there’s not enough documentation available. There is a real democratic deficit in terms of knowledge about national security,” he added.

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