A Fire-Proof House No More: Rethinking Canada’s National Security in the 21st Century

Western liberal democracies face an uncertain and tumultuous world, and Canada must take its own national security more seriously. By failing to do so, we place our interests, our values, and our citizens—and those of our closest allies and partners—at growing risk.

The Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa recently released a report calling on Canada to take bold action on national security. Supported by a group of retired senior public servants with extensive security experience, including former national security and intelligence advisers to the prime minister, deputy ministers of defence, foreign affairs and justice, and directors of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the report’s authors (Vincent Rigby and Thomas Juneau) recommend the urgent adoption of new strategies, tools, governance bodies and transparency measures to address the dangers that confront Canadians.

The World at a Crossroads: Rapidly Deteriorating Threat Environment

The report begins with an indisputable fact: Canada’s security environment, like that of other democracies, is rapidly deteriorating.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 validated an emerging global trend – the return of geo-strategic competition. Moscow’s aggression has rekindled memories of the Cold War, raising the specter of hostilities against NATO and even of nuclear war. Even before this unprovoked attack, revanchist Russia was playing a disruptive role internationally in undermining democratic elections and spreading disinformation. But in the space of six months, the global security environment has been transformed. Moscow’s recent actions pose a direct threat to Western interests and values and call for increased vigilance by NATO and other countries.

While western democracies are currently focussed on Ukraine, China poses an even more serious, long-term challenge. Its political, economic, military, and technological ascendance in the opening years of the twenty-first century has been the defining characteristic of a new geopolitical landscape. Over the last decade in particular, China has become more assertive in its region and beyond. It has expanded its power and influence, including with the Belt and Road Initiative, and undermined its competitors. China will continue to represent a significant threat to Canada through foreign interference, disinformation, espionage, intellectual property theft, hostage diplomacy, and cyber-attacks. These activities directly threaten our government institutions, but also individuals, businesses, universities, and research institutions.

China is watching developments in Ukraine closely as it pursues its interests at the expense of the West. Indeed, Beijing’s increasing co-operation with Moscow in recent years is a serious cause for concern. Chinese and Russian activities also reflect a deepening divide between democracy and autocracy around the globe, with the former clearly on the defensive. Liberal democracy is increasingly being challenged by authoritarian governments which seek to weaken the rules-based international order, including open trade, multilateralism, and human rights.

But liberal democracies are also being challenged from within, through the increased polarization of society driven by diverse grievances and disinformation. It is not inconceivable that democratic backsliding in the United States, highlighted recently by hearings of the January 6 House Committee, could over time lead to widespread political violence south of our border. Such a development could become a direct threat to Canada.

In Canada itself, we have witnessed the rise of right-wing extremism, including during the Freedom Convoy protests in Ottawa and the associated border blockades in Coutts, Emerson and Windsor earlier this year. They were a disturbing taste of the harm a small group of determined protestors could inflict on society and the economy. Some of the protestors advocated for the overthrow of the democratically elected government, and were in contact with extremists in the US and organized criminal groups.

And while our security agencies shift their attention to ideologically motivated violent extremism at home, international terrorism in the shape of Al Qaeda and ISIS has not disappeared. While their capabilities have been degraded (the recent US killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahir is the latest setback), these groups and their affiliates maintain the intent to strike against western targets.

Transnational trends such as pandemics and climate change threaten our health and environment, but also potentially our national security. They also act as catalysts for many other threats. The COVID-19 pandemic is one example. While its immediate impact has been apparent, through the daily toll of cases and lives lost, it has also weakened our economy, increased social and political tensions, and emboldened or further radicalized extremist groups, as witnessed by the protests in various parts of our country in February. The pandemic has also heightened geopolitical competition, and made the Canadian pharmaceutical sector more vulnerable to espionage by hostile states.

Climate change can also threaten the security of Canadians. Past and future warming in Canada is, on average, about double the magnitude of global warming. A warmer climate will intensify weather extremes, meaning more heatwaves and increased drought, wildfires, and floods. It will put stress on critical infrastructure and emergency responders, while increasing the demands on the Canadian Armed Forces to assist civil authorities. It is already causing dramatic changes in the Arctic, threatening the livelihoods of Canadians but also potentially fuelling geopolitical competition over navigable waterways, energy resources, and mineral deposits. Russia and China are investing in their Arctic capabilities and will increasingly engage in the theft of intellectual property of critical technologies to adapt to climate change. And, of course, beyond our own territory, climate change will have implications for Canada by causing instability in regions of interest, whether through increased competition over scare resources like water, or mass displacement and migration.

Finally, rising geopolitical competition is driving a science-and-technology contest between states. The objective for democracies is to keep a comparative advantage, as hostile states use a variety of technological and economic levers against us, including cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure such as the banking system, hospitals, or the power grid. Technology also allows extremists from across the ideological spectrum to generate and spread hateful propaganda and conspiracy theories. Emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing and hypersonic missiles, deepen threats posed by hostile states or criminals. This puts researchers and innovators in the private and public sectors in the crosshairs. We have seen strategic investments in sensitive sectors in Canada by companies which obfuscate their state ties. We have also seen the theft of intellectual property to advance the interests of foreign states and state-backed companies at the expense of the legitimate owners of that technology and Canada’s economic security. Research collaboration between Canadian and Chinese partners is a case in point. Despite the Government’s recent announcement to ban Huawei from 5G networks, Canada’s top research universities continue to collaborate with Chinese companies, many of which are close partners with the Chinese military.

Canada’s Security Complacency at Home and Abroad

Taken together, these threats have redefined the meaning of national security and imperil our country – our people, democratic values and institutions, economy, society, and sovereignty – like never before. Yet neither Canadians nor their governments have taken national security seriously on a consistent basis. This has led to widespread complacency. Canada’s position on national security seems little changed from nearly a century ago, when Senator Raoul Dandurand told an international gathering in 1924 that Canadians “live in a fireproof house far from inflammable materials.” Our history and geography created and then reinforced this attitude. Since the start of European settlement, Canadians have relied on others – first France, then Britain, now the United States – for protection. We have not experienced in recent memory a direct violent attack against our citizens on the same scale as some of our allies, creating a sense of invulnerability that has paved the way for our neglect of national security. When we do respond to security crises, whether in Canada or overseas, it is often last-minute and ad hoc.

Canada’s national security approach has failed to keep pace with the challenges that now face us. The federal government has not produced a comprehensive strategic threat assessment for the Canadian public since its last (and only) national security strategy was published in 2004. Likewise, we have had no international policy since 2005. In the absence of major reviews, there has been no thorough analysis of national security tools and authorities – whether they are being used to maximum effect or are experiencing gaps. Bill C-59, passed in 2019, replaced the fragmented architecture for reviewing national security activities with a more comprehensive system and amended the Anti-terrorism Act to better comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yet it still left much uncovered. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, for example, has not been thoroughly reviewed since 1984. Internal governance structures are out of step with those of our allies. The federal government needs to improve how it works with other levels of government. Transparency with Canadians has improved but remains far too limited

Our peers, including some of our partners in the Five Eyes such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, are responding very differently to the current threat environment. They are revamping policies, identifying new tools and authorities, reforming institutions, increasing transparency, devoting new resources, and seeking new partnerships. They possess not only a deeper appreciation of the threat environment but also a more mature national security culture. Canada is falling behind.

Moving Forward: Concrete Measures to improve our National Security

The recent report from the University of Ottawa recommends four main ways to better protect our country and its people and to keep pace with our allies.

1. Develop New Integrated Strategies to Guide our Security Efforts

First, the world has been transformed since the unveiling of Canada’s last National Security Policy nearly 20 years ago. It is time for a thorough public review of our national security. It will raise awareness among Canadians, identify the tools required to carry out priorities (such as legislation, authorities, and information and intelligence sharing), and introduce needed changes in governance and transparency. This review should focus on responding to major threats such as hostile activities of state actors (including foreign interference, espionage, disinformation, cyber attacks and intellectual property theft), non-state actors (terrorists and organized crime), pandemics, and climate change.

As part of this review, the government should also ensure its foreign, defence, and development policies and instruments are adequate in this new security environment. Importantly, national security should not differentiate between domestic and international threats. Domestic threat actors often have ties internationally, while international crises can impact Canada domestically. This does not mean conducting isolated updates such as that announced for defence in the 2022 federal budget or establishing a stove-piped regional strategy for the Indo-Pacific but pursuing a comprehensive approach that assesses all our national security assets in a coordinated fashion to respond to threats at home and abroad. The recent Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy undertaken by the United Kingdom serves as a useful model.

On the defence and foreign policy front, the government’s recent decision to finally acquire the F-35 fighter aircraft, as well as the budget announcement to spend $6.1 billion over five years to “meet our defence priorities,” including NORAD modernization, are welcome. But much more needs to be done. Urgent steps would include strengthening Arctic capabilities (for example, accelerating the delivery of Arctic and offshore patrol ships and constructing the Nanisivik naval station), increasing foreign intelligence capability, enhancing the ability to deploy expeditionary forces to foreign trouble-spots (to Europe, for example, as NATO contemplates larger force deployments there, but also potentially to the Indo-Pacific), expanding co-operation with allies on key security issues (such as joining the Australia/United Kingdom/United States AUKUS pact), and increasing support to non-proliferation and arms control initiatives in response to recent Russian threats of nuclear escalation.

A National Security Review must not be a paper exercise. Any new strategy must be fully costed and funded from the outset and updated at least every five years, with a full review conducted when circumstances significantly change.

2. Strengthen Key Tools from Legislation to Information Sharing.

The government must ensure that our national security tools are up-to-date and fit-for-purpose. This includes reviewing outdated legislation such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Act, which was passed nearly 40 years ago and has failed to keep up with rapid and widespread changes in the digital world. Technological advances have created opportunities for CSIS in intelligence collection, but also pose challenges for an aging statute. Information is increasingly stored outside Canada, or in an encrypted format that cannot be readily accessed or used (“lawful access”). At the same time, CSIS uses the intelligence it collects to advise the government and inform its decisions. But in doing so, this intelligence can become subject to disclosure in administrative, civil, or criminal proceedings. This can be a challenge, as the disclosure of sensitive information can sometimes be injurious to national security and damage domestic and foreign partnerships (the so-called “intell to evidence” dilemma). In addition to the CSIS Act, recent developments such as the Freedom Convoy and aggressive Chinese investment efforts in Canada have reinforced the need to review the Emergencies Act, the Investment Canada Act and the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act.

Canada also needs to collect and share intelligence more effectively, both inside and outside the federal government. Within the federal bureaucracy, every department and agency now has a stake in national security, and therefore requires greater access to intelligence and relevant policy discussions. Attention should also be paid to sharing information with provinces, territories, municipalities, and the private sector, all of which are critical partners in a whole-of-Canada response to threats. This should include establishing permanent mechanisms to share information and coordinate policies and operations between different levels of government. There is a requirement, in particular, for stronger and more inclusive bodies to bring together federal and provincial public safety officials, including for regular intelligence briefings. The government could also sponsor security clearances for key individuals at other levels of government and in the private sector, so that a larger number of non-federal officials and employees in universities and businesses can receive classified information. At a time when more information is available publicly than ever before, we must take better advantage of open-source intelligence opportunities, especially social media, to combat disinformation and protect our democracy. This could include establishing a stand-alone open-source intelligence center like some of our allies.

Canada also needs to develop specific strategies and instruments to deal with the hostile activities of state and non-state actors. With respect to the former, a comprehensive strategy could cover a range of initiatives, including addressing foreign interference through greater public information campaigns and new mechanisms like a National Counter Foreign Interference coordinator and a foreign influence registry; improving security in universities, research institutions and private companies, which are increasingly the target of hostile states aiming to steal intellectual property; setting mandatory minimum standards of cyber defence in critical infrastructure, including in such federally regulated sectors as telecommunications, finance, transport and energy; extending advanced cyber-defence services to all federal organizations, including crown corporations; and developing a strategy to support small- and medium-sized enterprises in preventing and mitigating cyber risks.

3. Improve Governance at the Centre: Creating a National Security Cabinet Committee and a more Robust Intelligence Function

A third priority for Canada is to reassess its national security governance framework. At the cabinet level, core ministers, such as those of public safety, defence, and foreign affairs, are kept up to speed on national security issues, and the prime minister is briefed by the National Security and Intelligence Advisor. But political discussions are sporadic and driven by events, and rarely involve collective intelligence briefings. The Incident Response Group, an ad-hoc body of cabinet ministers, is a good example. As its name implies, it meets only to react to crises.) We are the only country in the Five Eyes and the G7 without some form of strategic national security body led by the head of government. These bodies come in different shapes and sizes but at their essence they allow ministers to be briefed regularly and hold discussions on critical national security issues. They deal with short-term crises but also longer-term, strategic matters. They are also critical to building national security literacy within government. Canada requires something similar: a national security Cabinet body, chaired by the prime minister, which meets consistently and takes a more forward-looking view of the overall threat landscape, instead of focusing exclusively on ad-hoc responses to individual crises.

The government should also review the roles and resources of the national security and intelligence advisor to the prime minister, a key player in our national security community but whose responsibilities have evolved over time. The advisor has three important roles: supporting the prime minister, coordinating the security and intelligence community, and liaising with domestic and international stakeholders. But the resources devoted to supporting these roles are limited, and there has been no consistency in how the advisor performs them since the position was created nearly 20 years ago. For example, at times, the job has included advising on defence and foreign policy. At other times, those responsibilities have been removed. The advisor, in keeping with Five Eyes counterparts, must possess a full suite of authorities and tools, both domestic and international.

There is also a need to reorganize the intelligence analysis function within government. Currently, every department or agency with national security responsibilities has its own analysis and assessment unit. Some are small, such as the assessment team at Global Affairs Canada, while others are larger, such as the analytical teams within the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command. Too often, however, individual units work in silos and fail to coordinate their work. There is no strong, central body that can act as a fusion center to produce intelligence assessments that reflect whole-of-government priorities and coordinate the work of the community. Two units partly perform this function: the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat in the Privy Council Office and the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, housed within CSIS. Neither, however, is equipped to consistently perform a vibrant, central assessment role. As a result, Cabinet does not get the consistent analytical support that it needs to truly raise the level of debate on national security matters. These bodies should be merged to provide this essential function.

4. Increase Transparency to Build Greater Public Support and Trust

Finally, government must better engage the Canadian public. The national security community’s tradition of secrecy is outdated and counterproductive. It creates mistrust at a time when government needs Canadians’ support more than ever. The national security community’s engagement efforts must therefore be increased, both with the broader public – civil society, the private sector, academia, and the media – and Parliament. This would include annual public threat assessments, the release of intelligence priorities, greater intelligence disclosures as witnessed in the United States and the UK on the Ukraine conflict, more speeches and social media engagement by senior officials, Government public responses to the reports of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, and regular briefings to parliamentarians.


We live in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world, a reality driven home by recent events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the pandemic, and domestic protests against government health measures. Canada cannot isolate itself from the many and varied security threats facing the world. Our “fire-proof” house has vanished. So too must our complacency. We need to embrace a whole-of-Canada approach, bringing together all levels of government, the private sector, civil society, and the public to meet the threats emanating from abroad or within our borders. When it comes to national security, threats at home and overseas are two sides of the same coin, and must be taken equally seriously.

Many of the recommendations outlined here – whether crafting grand strategy, strengthening specific tools, enhancing governance, or increasing transparency and trust with Canadians - would not require massive new spending. But no matter what the cost, it should never be too high for defending Canada and Canadians – the primordial responsibility of any government. Now is the time to act, before the world becomes even more unstable in the coming years and we fall further behind our allies. Policymakers must have the courage to look at national security beyond today’s news cycle and the next election.

About the author

Vincent RigbyVincent Rigby is the Max Bell School of Public Policy's McConnell Visiting Professor for 2022-2023. He recently retired from Canada’s Public Service after 30 years in a variety of departments and agencies across government, including the Privy Council Office, Global Affairs Canada, Public Safety, the Department of National Defence and the former Canadian International Development Agency.

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