A former colleague once compared Canada’s approach to national security to the attitude of a bonobo monkey. Bonobos have few natural predators, which over time has given them a more docile nature compared to other species. As a result of the characteristics that come with their docility, bonobos have been unable to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances.
So it is with Canadians on matters of national security. Because of our proximity to the United States, which has traditionally been more than happy to shoulder the national security burden, Canadians have become accustomed to enduring safety from foreign threats. Sure, we have had terrorist incidents that have impacted us: the shocking attacks on Canadian Armed Forces members in October 2014, the Air India bombing of 1985, and 9/11, in which more than two dozen Canadians died.
The infrequency of these attacks, combined with a political class which fails repeatedly to name radical Islamic terrorism as a serious and insidious enemy, has left most Canadians feeling that terrorism cannot impact them personally. In other words, decisions that make sense for a silverback gorilla seem foreign and distasteful to the bonobo. Not for any reason of superiority – as many Canadians like to think – but simply due to different mindsets resulting from our natural environment. We are safe, therefore believe we will always be safe, and that safety exists everywhere.
This is partly why there was such a viscerally negative reaction to the Harper government's Anti-terrorism Act, 2015, more commonly known as Bill C-51. For those who don't recall this bill, it was focused on efforts to give security agencies more tools to disrupt terrorist threats and counter radicalization. This assumption is also why the serious, substantial and potentially harmful changes proposed by the Liberal government in Bill C-59 have received a very timid assessment. For example, University of Ottawa professor Wesley Wark capped his assessment of this bill by saying “Canada may have restored its place in the world as it pertains to national security review and democratic controls.” To show the complete disconnect between these comments and the reality of the national security environment, he made these comments the day after the Champs-Élysées car ramming attack in France, and the failed detonation of a suicide bomb by a terrorist in Brussels.
But these changes are concerning, and Conservatives need to address them on two fronts. First, we need to explain what these changes do, and why they pose a risk. Second, we need to explain the realities of what our security agencies are and are not doing in our name.
One area we can all agree needs bolstering is the need to tackle online radicalization. ISIS has made this their bread and butter in recent attacks on the West. The Internet acts as a force multiplier for the most radical of jihadis. However, Bill C-59 removes the ability of law enforcement to crack down on those who use the internet as a tool to radicalize. Under the Liberal legislation, an individual would have to advocate for a specific attack, including an identifiable target, to be caught up in a crime. This is not going to prove effective.
Another seemingly common sense element gutted by the Liberals is Recognizance with Conditions, often called "preventative arrest." They are moving the threshold from “likely” to stop a terrorist act to “necessary” to stop a terrorist act. This makes precious little sense; if law enforcement is aware of the precise specifics of a planned terror attack, they could lay criminal charges. A recognizance, as an instrument with a lower impact on liberty interests, is meant to be used in circumstances when less evidence is available.
Conservatives must also do a better job explaining what authorities our security agencies actually have and what they need. Neither our signals intelligence nor human intelligence have the powers, or frankly the manpower, to engage in dragnet collection of personal communications. In reality, CSIS is so under-resourced that they do not even have enough intelligence officers to keep track of all of those who have returned from fighting with ISIS overseas.
One of the major failings of the Harper government on this file was to assume that national security agencies should be felt, but not seen or heard. This led to a culture of extreme secrecy where, even though there were serious threats against Canada, people took a cartoonish view of our security authorities, assuming that the national security apparatus has the desire or capacity to track the every move of ordinary citizens.
Conservatives need to loudly and clearly say we do, in fact, reject the excesses of American signals intelligence programs like the outrageous U.S. National Security Agency data collection program known as Prism. But we also need to clearly state that tools to crack down on radicalizers, like the Muslim Brotherhood, are necessary to keep Canadians safe and do not infringe on basic liberties. If we are able to clearly articulate ourselves in both of these areas, we will be able to present a strong contrast with the extremely weak-on-security Trudeau government, while still appealing to those who are skeptical of increased government power of any kind.
That coalition is key to the Conservative movement's electoral success in the future. Given the track record of the other parties on national security, that electoral success is incredibly important for safeguarding the safety of all Canadians.