The Task Force was directed by the recently-retired former national security and intelligence advisor to the prime minister, Vincent Rigby, and one of the most credible analysts of security and defence in this country, Thomas Juneau.
They were joined by a veritable who’s who of Canadian national security experts.
In other words, it’s hard to imagine a more qualified group to make recommendations on “How Canada can adapt to a deteriorating security environment.”
The majority of the report’s recommendations are entirely reasonable, in particular in terms of how Ottawa should organize the public service to analyze and counter threats to the state, to national institutions, and to individual Canadians.
If you are interested in these issues, the document is therefore well worth your time.
But I am not hopeful that it will effect transformative change in Ottawa.
The authors all but explain why on page 10:
“Collectively, we have neglected national security for decades, largely because we could afford to do so. Shielded from major threats, we generally suffered little or no cost for our complacency. Whenever we dealt with national security issues, it was largely in a reactive way, in response to events, and not through a more proactive, structured approach.”
They justify the need for a different approach by claiming that this time “of intense global instability, when the security of Canada and other liberal democracies is under growing threat,” is somehow different from all of the previous ones.
I agree that Ottawa’s traditional approach to national security has been risky, perhaps even irresponsible, but I wonder whether the strategic environment today is that much more threatening than the one we faced when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, or when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, or when Syria dropped chemical weapons on its own people in 2017, or when the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps blew up Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in 2020.
Nor do I detect any sense of urgency among Canadians writ large.
National security is hardly a focus of the current Conservative leadership campaign. It has not come up much, if at all, in Ontario’s provincial election. I don’t recall reading much about it when Jason Kenney pledged to resign as premier of Alberta. It is certainly not the reason for the ongoing political controversy in Quebec. Nor do I suspect it will have a role in the forthcoming Toronto municipal election.
Part of the problem is that, for decades, practitioners and analysts of Canadian national security (and defence) have all but cried wolf on a regular basis.
When I arrived at the Canadian Forces College in 2006, I recall hearing over and over again how the contemporary operating environment was more dangerous than it had ever been.
In the 16 years since, a year hasn’t gone by when I haven’t heard the same thing – from multiple speakers. Yet, as the authors of the report make clear, Canadians have yet to pay a serious price for our collective apathy.
Ottawa might well need “the support and trust of Canadians” to develop “a whole-of-Canada response to security threats,” but I don’t think that the report’s recommendations to increase government transparency and the engagement of practitioners with the public will suffice.
Barring a genuine catastrophe, the national security apparatus is unlikely to touch a sufficient number of Canadians directly, and sustainably, so as to effect the necessary change in public perception.
On the other hand, who hasn’t heard of someone with a problem renewing their passport, or with the status of their immigration paperwork recently? Are there any Canadians left that aren’t aware that long-term drinking water advisories are still a reality on almost 30 reserves?
If public trust is key to changing Canada’s national security culture (which it might well be), perhaps Ottawa should focus on getting the little things right. Do that, and I suspect that the Canadian public will be much more amenable to tackling the big challenges down the road.
Hopefully, we can reach that point before it’s too late.
If you do read the report, why not compare it to a similar one produced by the Centre for International Governance Innovation back in December. I’d be fascinated to learn more about any differences between the two.
In other news, I originally intended to post to this blog once or twice per month. Somehow, I seem to have ended up posting weekly. While I enjoy doing so, this pace is not sustainable, especially as I prepare to return to the classroom in August. I therefore anticipate cutting back a bit going forward. If there are things you’d like me to write about, you can reach me here.
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