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ANALYSIS: As Canada Grapples With Foreign Interference, Most Recent National Security Strategy Is 20 Years Old


The last time Canada published a national security strategy, Facebook had just launched and TV sitcom “Friends” was airing its final episode.

The year was 2004 and Paul Martin was prime minister. The world had been shaken a few years earlier by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and authorities were taking stock of the SARS outbreak.

“The increase in terrorist acts and the threat of rapid, globalized spread of infectious disease all challenge our society and the sense of security that is so critical to our quality of life,” said Mr. Martin in the executive summary of his national security policy, noting that it was the “first-ever policy of its kind in Canada.”

So much has happened since. Despite the global War on Terror, or perhaps as a collateral effect, fanatics pushing the al-Qaeda envelope further took over swathes of territory in the Middle East with the help of legions of foreign volunteers.

And if the spread of SARS outside China took world governments by surprise, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was magnitudes more disruptive across the globe.

While the ISIS terrorist group is now mostly ashes and COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror, many more domestic and international challenges remain as they pertain to national security.

Yet Canada’s national strategy hasn’t been updated to address the new threat environment. This is in contrast to some of its closest allies that have released a national strategy in the last two years.

‘Securing an Open Society’

Canada’s first and also most recent national security policy, published in April 2004, was titled “Securing an Open Society.” It was focused on addressing “three core national security interests,” including “protecting Canada and Canadians at home and abroad,” “ensuring Canada is not a base for threats to our allies,” and “contributing to international security.”

The words “foreign interference” do not appear at all in the 52-page document.

One can assume that if such a document were produced today, this type of threat would occupy a sizeable space, given all the reports about Beijing’s extensive interference in Canada.

The closest thing to foreign interference listed as a main threat facing Canada at that time was “foreign espionage.”

“As a highly advanced industrial economy, Canada is subject to foreign espionage that seeks to steal Canadian industrial and technical secrets for gain,” the policy said.

The first threat listed was terrorism, followed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The United States had launched the Iraq War in 2003 around allegations—later revealed to be unsubstantiated—that Saddam Hussein harboured such weapons.

In its list of threats, Canada’s 2004 strategy also mentioned failed and failing states, critical infrastructure vulnerability, organized crime, pandemics in the SARS context, and natural disasters, but no word about climate change.

To address these various threats, Mr. Martin saw value in creating a comprehensive policy to outline the “integrated security system” Ottawa would build.

Security Legacy

More than just words, the 2004 national security strategy is linked to initiatives that have endured to this day.

It announced creation of the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre (ITAC), aimed at bringing together analysts from different sectors of the federal security apparatus to assess potential threats and allow better decision-making. ITAC is still in operation, although its mandate and name were changed to Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre during the Stephen Harper Conservative government years to focus more specifically on the threat of terrorism.

Measures were also taken to enhance the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. The lab has been embroiled in controversy in recent years with two scientists having collaborated with the Chinese military and being fired over security breaches.

There were other changes made to the security apparatus by the Liberal government of Paul Martin that had lasting impacts.

In December 2003, a few months before the national security policy launched, Mr. Martin had appointed Anne McLellan as the first minister of public safety and emergency preparedness to oversee the newly created department, and also established the position of the national security adviser to the prime minister.
One key measure outlined in the security policy that was not fulfilled was the creation of a National Security Committee of Parliamentarians. This idea came to fruition 13 years later under a new Liberal government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) in 2017.

NSICOP, composed of parliamentarians of all stripes who hold top-level security clearance, has worked largely in the shadows, answering to the prime minister and producing reports probably mostly read by national security academics and reporters.

After a year and a half of intelligence leaks and political drama around the extent of Chinese regime interference in Canada, NSICOP dealt the coup de grâce: “Some elected officials … began wittingly assisting foreign state actors soon after their election.”

Following a political uproar, the issue was handed over to the Foreign Interference Commission for further examination.

Threat Landscape

Amid intense scrutiny around foreign interference, the federal government was able to pass legislation in short order this spring aiming to counter the threat. Bill C-70, an Act respecting countering foreign interference, creates new foreign interference offences, provides the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) with new authorities, and will lead to the creation of a foreign influence registry.

Undoubtedly, foreign interference would feature prominently in an updated national security strategy. So would protecting against cyberattacks and the potential dangers of unchecked artificial intelligence.

Former CSIS executive Dan Stanton called for such a strategy during the foreign interference storm spurred by intelligence leaks in the spring of 2023, before the government called a public inquiry and passed its related legislation.

“We haven’t had a national security policy renewed since 2004,” he said while testifying before the House of Commons ethics committee in March 2023. “The threat landscape in this country has changed enormously in the last 20 years—qualitatively. There are new threats with AI and all sorts of things. I think Canadians deserve something like that, and it should be a national security policy that is China-centric.”

Other threats involving armed conflicts, instability, and geopolitical competition and shocks have been addressed by the Canadian government in major policies recently released.

The defence policy update released in April says Canada needs to adapt faster as “instability at home and abroad is increasing quickly.”
“Going forward, Canada will publish a National Security Strategy every four years,” wrote the Department of National Defence (DND) in the updated policy, adding that it too will produce policy reviews more systematically. The department’s last defence policy was released in 2017.

The Epoch Times reached out to DND, Public Safety Canada, and the Privy Council Office to find out more about the plan to publish a national security strategy every four years, but didn’t hear back by publication time.

Another major government policy released by the government in recent years that includes elements of national security is the Indo-Pacific Strategy launched in November 2022.

“Every issue that matters to Canadians—national security, economic prosperity, respect for international law and human rights, democratic values, public health, protecting our environment—will be shaped by the relationships that Canada, along with its partners, have with countries throughout the Indo-Pacific,” said Global Affairs Canada in announcing the strategy in November 2022.

Five Eyes Strategies

If Canada hasn’t been proactive in producing a national security strategy under different ruling parties since 2004, the same cannot be said of its close intelligence partners of the Five Eyes like the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand.

The U.S. government released its national security strategy in 2022. “We will not leave our future vulnerable to the whims of those who do not share our vision for a world that is free, open, prosperous, and secure,” said President Joe Biden in presenting the strategy.

Mr. Biden singled out China’s attempt to “reshape the international order” in its favour, while noting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The UK’s “refreshed” national security strategy released in 2023 by the Rishi Sunak Conservative government is focused around the same themes.

It says that “China poses an epoch-defining challenge to the type of international order we want to see, both in terms of security and values – and so our approach must evolve.”

It also speaks of deterrence and notes the “urgent priority” of supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

New Zealand released its first-ever national security strategy in 2023, called “Secure Together.”

“We do things our own way in New Zealand, and our approach to national security is no different,” wrote Prime Minister Chris Hipkins in presenting the strategy. “Secure Together reflects our unique geography, history and values as a basis for how we can navigate a more contested and disrupted world.”

The policy says that New Zealanders previously saw themselves protected from threats by geography, but terrorism, disinformation, and cyberattacks have now left “indelible marks.”

“Other harms, such as foreign interference, may be less visible but are no less harmful to our security.”

Australia, the other partner in the Five Eyes alliance, released its last national security strategy in 2013.
The think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a note in April calling on the Australian government to work on a new strategy.

“With a reduction in strategic warning time, an evolving set of threats and, above all, a collapse of the distinction between our economic and security interests, there is a case for an updated national security strategy to improve co–ordination between government agencies and explain to the public of how it plans to protect Australia’s vital interests,” wrote Michael McNeil, managing director of strategic advisory firm Bower Group Asia.

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