Summary – Roundtable on National Security

The following is a summary of the CDA Institute Roundtable held on 28 June 2016. These roundtable discussions are held under the Chatham House Rule. This summary reflects Analyst Ryan Olshansky’s perception of the discussion. The CDA Institute thanks our Strategic Partners Lockheed Martin Canada and General Dynamics for their generous sponsorship of the 2016/​17 Roundtable Discussion Series.

At a recent roundtable hosted by the CDA Institute, participants had the opportunity to discuss the evolving national security environment.

The discussion began by an evaluation of how Canadian prime ministers prioritize and view their role in national security. For the past couple of decades, prime ministers have viewed national security as their primary responsibility for two reasons: security and defence policies encompass multiple departments and are too large for one minister alone; and in diplomacy, such proposals are shopped around the world at the leader-​level.

So it’s no surprise that Prime Minister Trudeau followed the lead of his predecessors by involving himself heavily in the security file. For example, he chairs the Cabinet Committee on intelligence priorities and emergency management, which allows him to directly coordinate the various departments and agencies concerned. Departments and agencies therefore have to take this into account when they put forward new proposals. If proposals do not include a whole-​of-​government perspective, they will never see the light of day.

In some sense, the synergy between departments has become more necessary as traditional threats have evolved. An example is foreign investment in Canadian industries from the Chinese government, which may be supported by Finance Canada but viewed with concern by Canadian intelligence agencies. Equally important to eliminating silos within the government is enhancing cooperation with civil society, provinces, and global actors. Canada’s Federal government relies on the cooperation of community leaders, provinces and other countries to discharge its national security responsibilities. Some participants suggested that this meant that national security is no longer national.

Indeed, coalitions are needed because threats have become increasingly multifaceted. Unlike during the Cold War, Canada does not face any existential threats; instead, threats come from multiple sources which often operate in ungoverned space (mostly in the Middle East and Africa). Western states are now adept at neutralizing sudden enemy combatants when and where they appear. But those victories are not enough and threats reappear, leading to what was called an ongoing game of ‘whack-​a-​mole.’

Part of the difficulty in eliminating the enemy is their lack of restraint and their ideological fervor. The most immediate threat is ISIL, an extremist organization able to project terror against the West. Military presence to combat ISIL is necessary, but insufficient when considering their continued recruitment efforts within the Muslim male population in the West, and indeed in Canada. As a point of reference, over 80 ISIL operators have returned to Canada; some regretted their decision to take up arms, some are plotting attacks in Canada, and some are in the middle. At a local level, this threat requires two-​ended communications with the Muslim community to rebuild relationships and to ensure communities engage law enforcement officials when they have suspicions of criminal activity.

Along with Islamic terrorism is the burgeoning threat of cyberwarfare, which has already been used to propagate terror and shut down parts of some critical infrastructure abroad. The United Nations argued that intellectual property theft has cost the world economy more than $1 trillion. Canada has been hit $4–5 billion – and that number is sure to grow. State actors (China specifically) and non-​state actors have become increasingly sophisticated in their techniques and are targeting both public and private institutions.

Despite terrorism and cyberwarfare consuming most of the discussion, participants also made sure to note how those issues were compounded by the poking and probing of regional powers. Russia has made a point of flexing its muscles in Syria, Ukraine and the Arctic. Saudi Arabia feels abandoned by the United States and has begun antagonizing Iran. The United States’ relationship with Israel has worsened, and Israel has gotten closer with Russia. And China is pushing to have greater influence in the Asia-​Pacific region.

How can the Prime Minister deal with such varied and multifold threats?

Certainly not alone. Cooperation with the international community will be paramount for security. Civilizational challenges from Iraq to China have led to new movements of nationalism and calls for sovereignty from minority groups, which again requires regional consensus on the governance of its peoples.

Continued cooperation with the global community through groups like NATO may come with demands for Canadian security forces to contribute more. A major challenge for leaders is persuading the public about the needs of the Canadian military and intelligence agencies when there remains no existential threat to Canada. Arguing, for example, that we need armoured tanks to protect the main land may not pass muster with the electorate. Instead, leaders must tie the needs of our military and intelligence agencies with the protection of Canadian values, the delivery of aid, the stability of states, and the growth of the global economy, and ultimately how all those outcomes are in Canadian interests.

Greater contribution from Canada will cost a lot and require significant manpower and stakeholder outreach. The benefits that will eventually be accrued may not be realized at the outset, and so the political value is unclear or delayed. But given the prime minister’s unique responsibility to stick-​handle Canada’s national security, the need to convince the public of Canada’s responsibilities in the global fight for peace rests principally on his shoulders.

Ryan Olshansky is a former advisor to the Veterans Affairs Minister and the Associate Defence Minister. He recently graduated from Carleton University and is an Analyst at the CDA Institute. (Image courtesy of Agence France-​Presse.)

Share the article :

Do you want to respond to this piece?

Submit and article. Find out how, here:


In order to personalize your user experience, CDA Institute uses strictly necessary cookies and similar technologies to operate this site. See details here.