Canada should rethink relationship with U.S. as democratic 'backsliding' worsens: security experts

Canada’s intelligence community will need to grapple with the growing influence of anti-democratic forces in the United States — including the threat posed by conservative media outlets like Fox News — says a new report from a task force of intelligence experts.

Former national security advisers, CSIS directors say U.S. could become a 'source of threat and instability'

Jacob Anthony Chansley, centre, with other insurrectionists who supported then-President Donald Trump, are confronted by U.S. Capitol Police in the hallway outside of the Senate chamber in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. Chansley was among the first group of insurrectionists who entered the hallway outside the Senate chamber. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

Canada's intelligence community will have to grapple with the growing influence of anti-democratic forces in the United States — including the threat posed by conservative media outlets like Fox News — says a new report from a task force of intelligence experts.

"The United States is and will remain our closest ally, but it could also become a source of threat and instability," says a newly published report written by a task force of former national security advisers, former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) directors, ex-deputy ministers, former ambassadors and academics. Members of the group have advised both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Now is the time for the federal government to rethink how it approaches national security, the report concludes.

The authors — some of whom had access to Canada's most prized secrets and briefed cabinet on emerging threats — say Canada has become complacent in its national security strategies and is not prepared to tackle threats like Russian and Chinese espionage, the "democratic backsliding" in the United States, a rise in cyberattacks and climate change.

"We believe that the threats are quite serious at the moment, that they do impact Canada," said report co-author Vincent Rigby, who until a few months ago served as the national security adviser to Trudeau.

"We don't want it to take a crisis for [the] government of Canada to wake up."

The report he helped write says that one area in need of a policy pivot is Canada's relationship with the United States.

Controversial Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson seized on the convoy protests to accuse Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of having declared a 'dictatorship.' (Screenshot/FoxNews.com)

Thomas Juneau, co-director of the task force and associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, said that while Canada's right-wing extremism is homegrown, cross-border connections between extremist groups are alarming.

"There are growing transnational ties between right-wing extremists here and in the U.S., the movement of funds, the movement of people, the movement of ideas, the encouragement, the support by media, such as Fox News and other conservative media," he said.

Convoy was a 'wakeup call,' says adviser

He pointed to state Sen. Doug Mastriano's recent win in the Republican primary for governor of Pennsylvania. Mastriano is a well-known proponent of the lie that election fraud caused former president Donald Trump's loss in 2020.

"There are serious risks of democratic backsliding in the U.S. and at this point, that is not a theoretical risk," Juneau said.

"So all of that is a serious threat to our sovereignty, to our security, and in some cases, to our democratic institutions ... We need to rethink our relationship with the United States."

The report points to the convoy protest that occupied downtown Ottawa in February and associated blockades in a handful of border towns earlier this winter. What started as a broad protest against COVID-19 restrictions morphed into a even broader rally against government authority itself, with some protesters calling for the overthrow of the elected government.

RCMP said that at the protest site near Coutts, Alta., they seized a cache of weapons; four people now face a charge of conspiracy to murder.

It "should be a wakeup call," said Rigby.

"We potentially dodged a bullet there. We really did. And we're hoping that the government and ... other levels of government have learned lessons."

Alberta RCMP submitted this photo of what they say is a cache of firearms and ammunition found in three trailers near a protest blockade of the Canada-U.S. border at Coutts, Alta. (RCMP)

The Canadian protests drew support from politicians in the U.S. and from conservative media outlets, including Fox News, says the report.

"This may not have represented foreign interference in the conventional sense, since it was not the result of actions of a foreign government. But it did represent, arguably, a greater threat to Canadian democracy than the actions of any state other than the United States," the report says.

"It will be a significant challenge for our national security and intelligence agencies to monitor this threat, since it emanates from the same country that is by far our greatest source of intelligence."

During the convoy protest, Fox host Tucker Carlson — whose show draws in millions of viewers every night — called Trudeau a "Stalinist dictator" on air and accused him of having "suspended democracy and declared Canada a dictatorship."

Carlson himself has been under attack recently for pushing the concept of replacement theory — a racist concept that claims white Americans are being deliberately replaced through immigration.

The theory was cited in the manifesto of the 18-year-old man accused in the mass shooting in a predominately Black neighbourhood in Buffalo, N.Y. earlier this month.

The conspiracy theory also has been linked to previous mass shootings, including the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Calls for new national security strategy

"When we think about threats to Canada, we think about the Soviet military threat, we think about al-Qaeda, we think about the rise of China, we think about the war in Ukraine. All of these are true. But so is the rising threat to Canada that the U.S. poses," said Juneau.

"That's completely new. That calls for a new way of thinking and new way of managing our relationship with the U.S."

The conversation with the U.S. doesn't have to be uncomfortable but it does need to happen, said Rigby.

"It certainly would not be couched in a way of, 'You're the source of our problems.' That would not be the conversation. The conversation would be, 'How can we help each other?'" he said.

"We had those conversations during President Trump's tenure and business continues. Does it become a little bit more challenging when you have a president like Mr. Trump? Absolutely, without a doubt. But we are still close, close allies."

It's why both Rigby and Juneau are hoping the report will spur the government to launch a new national security strategy review — something that hasn't happened since 2004.

"I know there's a certain cynicism around producing these strategies ... another bulky report that's going to end up on a shelf and gather dust," said Rigby. 

"But if they're done properly, they're done fast and they're done efficiently and effectively — and our allies have done them — they can work and they're important."

The report makes a number of recommendations. It wants a review of CSIS's enabling legislation, more use of open-source intelligence and efforts to strengthen cyber security. It also urges normally secretive intelligence agencies to be more open with the public by disclosing more intelligence and publishing annual threat assessments.

"There's a new expanded definition of national security. It's not your grandparents' national security," said Rigby.

"It's time to step out of the shadows and step up and confront these challenges."


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

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