Chairman's Desk

Canada must ‘build back better’ its national security infrastructure

“A society grows great when elders plant trees under whose shade they know they will never sit.” Versions of the proverb trace their roots to many cultures for a reason: it is bloody good advice.

And it is advice the Trudeau government should take when it comes to making long-term, expensive — and yes, likely politically unpopular — investments in Canada’s national security framework.

At a time when voter priorities are understandably focused on things like affordability and housing, some political strategists may see this as a difficult call. However, the reality is that if our government fails to address this file — even if it is one that does not deliver them a short-term political win — our domestic security will not only be compromised in the future, but now as well.

A report this week from the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) laid bare the shortcomings of Canada’s national security apparatus. Governed by archaic legislation and neglected by generations of politicians, it is now brutally ill-equipped to deal with the array of mounting security risks posed by increasing geopolitical tensions, climate change and technological advancement.

It was in 2004 that a Canadian government last formulated a comprehensive national security strategy. If the world was a threatening place then, it is a tinderbox now.

British Columbia is suffering dire climate issues, yet our security frameworks do not adequately incorporate climate risk. Furthermore, the geopolitical outlook is as tense as ever; autocratic regimes are becoming increasingly emboldened, posing real threats to the free world.

Vladimir Putin has amassed hundreds of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, prompting emergency talks with the U.S. president and provoking anxiety across Europe. While in Canada we often see ourselves as immune to these threats, we are not — and we can be sure such complacency will one day haunt us if not eradicated.

CSIS, our own security service, has increased the intensity of its warnings to Canadians and to our government over the past year. Autocracies, particularly China, and various non-state actors are continually looking to exert influence in Canada through shadowy propaganda campaigns and cyberwarfare. What’s more, global security experts have been sounding alarms over the rise of “killer robot” technologies — artificial intelligence with deadly military capabilities never seen before.

The challenge is that the legislation governing CSIS is almost four decades old, yet today’s environment barely resembles the world back then.

The question for our politicians is how to respond to these real-world threats, when Canadians are unlikely to support the massive funds required. Firstly, our government must remember that its foremost duty lies in protecting Canadians, not in winning popularity contests. Second, as recommended in CIGI’s report, they must act with greater transparency to convey just how acute these threats are. It is the only way to do two things: ensure appropriate oversight, and avoid bewildering Canadians in their pursuit of drastic and necessary changes.

Last week the head of MI6 explained that the British intelligence service had to “become more open in order to stay secret.” In Canada, this is even more important. Our government must collaborate with its security forces to explain the threats we are facing, and the action required. As our intelligence chief David Vigneault aptly put it, “people might not care about geopolitics, but it cares about you.”

By not prioritizing foreign policy at election time, Canadians repeatedly give our governments a free ride on national security. Those days are over — time is of the essence to address a changing world.

In its throne speech, the government promised to “review diplomatic engagement.” I hope they will go a great deal further. Only a wholesale restructuring of our security apparatus will protect us from tomorrow’s threats.

Doing so would not only be an act of true leadership, but would honour their oaths to be faithful and true servants of the Crown.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star on December 12, 2021.

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