Ottawa needs a whole new approach to national security threats, experts say

More than 250 national security experts, including former high-ranking government officials, are calling on Ottawa to re-imagine its approach to security threats to confront new sources of peril — from fast-spreading disease outbreaks to natural disasters driven by climate change.

New report calls for a high-level approach to emerging threats, such as disasters driven by climate change

Members of the Canadian Forces arrive by front end loader to help residents cope with catastrophic flooding in Abbotsford, B.C. on November 20, 2021. Climate-driven weather events are part of the array of new threats Canada needs to incorporate into its national security strategy, experts say. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

More than 250 national security experts, including former high-ranking government officials, are calling on Ottawa to re-think its approach to security threats to confront new sources of peril — from fast-spreading disease outbreaks to natural disasters driven by climate change.

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) released a report today — the culmination of more than a year of work — that examines Canada's security posture in the face of new dangers like the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 42-page assessment draws together research, interviews and public comments from senior security officials. It argues that virus outbreaks and destructive climate change events represent a whole new field of national security threats — one that demands more than an ad-hoc approach from the federal government.

"There is an expanded definition of national security out there that we should all be looking at," said Vincent Rigby, who was until recently Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's national security adviser.

"The traditional state-to-state threats that we have seen in the past are no longer [exclusive]. Things like pandemics and COVID-19, things like climate change, those do have national security dimensions."

The report calls on the federal government to build a better "strategic framework." It recommends the establishment of a new cabinet committee on national security chaired by the prime minister, which would have input from the public safety, defence and global affairs departments.

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces help with pandemic response at a long-term care home in Montreal on May 16, 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

It would replace the current ad-hoc Incident Response Group, which brings cabinet ministers together in the event of a major crisis.

"A cabinet committee on national security would have a more focused mandate and a forward-looking capacity to consider strategic and longer-term responses to threats," says the report. An advance copy of the report was obtained by CBC News.

The federal government had such a committee during the Cold War. It was scrapped after the Soviet Union collapsed.

On Friday, the Liberal government took a tentative step toward addressing this concern by launching a cabinet committee on safety, security and emergencies, to be chaired by Privy Council President and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair.

The new committee will have a mandate to conduct strategic analysis of threats but, in announcing the overhaul, Trudeau said the incident response group would continue to meet as required.

'Two sides of the same coin'

Trudeau's government also recently set up a cabinet committee on "Canada and the world," tasked with examining issues related to Canada's international relationships, including trade and defence matters.

Rigby said he hadn't seen the full details of how these two new cabinet committees were set up. He said it's a mistake to treat domestic and international security matters as distinct when they are "two sides of the same coin."

The CIGI report also calls for a major shift in cabinet-level security analysis through the creation of a Canadian version of the U.S. National Security Council, "to better integrate and inform senior decision making."

U.S. President Barack Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden, attend a meeting with members of the National Security Council on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, at the White House. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

The NSC brings representatives of the military and intelligence services together with civilian officials to advise the U.S. president on domestic and international security threats.

A Canadian NSC could ensure an ongoing dialogue at the highest levels of the federal government about emerging threats, and compel officials to look at intelligence assessments and warnings in a more integrated way.

"You can't respond to national security issues and threats on a case-by-case basis and you can't pull together bodies at the last minute to deal with every national security threat," said Rigby.

Security for the long term

While the incident response group looks at imminent threats, he said, "you need bodies that look at the long-term strategic implications of these threats. And that is where greater central coordination would be helpful."

The report suggests Canada has not paid close attention to national security since the end of the Cold War. 

The last time the federal government articulated a national security strategy was in 2004, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"The threats have really evolved in those intervening years," said Rigby.

The world has changed considerably since the Cold War ended, due to the return of great power competition and the unique challenge presented by China's rise and its more assertive role in world affairs.

The legislation governing the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) hasn't been overhauled in a major way in 37 years, the report said — more evidence that Canada's security framework is badly outdated.

"Cutting edge technology back in 1984 was the fax machine and a lot has changed since 1984," said Rigby.

The report also recommends that the federal government be more open about the threats facing the country by tabling annual reports and statements in Parliament.

"COVID-19 has proven that threats can materialize suddenly, with profound impacts on the lives and livelihoods of all Canadians," says the report. "The prime minister should present to Parliament an annual statement on the worldwide threats that Canada and Canadians face."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.