Thinking About Canada’s Security and Defence

New government — new changes ahead? Stand by for defence and foreign policy reviews. Except that the parameters of those reviews probably won’t change much. Defence policy reviews usually come down to promising more cooperation with our US and other NATO allies, using procurement to help Canadian industry improve its footing in international defence industry and, of course, taking steps to ensure our Arctic sovereignty claims have some foundation. Oh yes, and cyber security. Foreign policy reviews aren’t much different. They add a component on trade and remind Canadians that the UN is there to mitigate some of the threats produced by a dangerous world.

There might be some other considerations this time around. There are some reports the new government is thinking of a tighter focus on defence of Canada including risks within our borders. If so, perhaps we could widen the threat definition to include, for instance, climate change, the digital/biotech revolution, and globalization, three of biggest trends affecting the world right now and all of which pose threats to Canadian security.

Climate Change

Climate change is disrupting the North. We know about the Northwest Passage opening and the disputes with the US about how much is international and how much comes within Canadian territorial limits. But what about Canada’s ability to enforce the sovereignty it claims in the region?

Climate change is not only affecting the coastline. It’s also melting the permafrost that supports rail and roadways along the northern Mackenzie Valley and between Churchill and Le Pas. Churchill has the potential to be a major Arctic port. But only if the cargo can be on-loaded and off-loaded and carried overland to southern distribution points. And that infrastructure has to be defended in some way. And that means having the ability to move undetected while detecting other movement in the region.

But wait. There’s more. Defence against climate change ought to include de-toxing our lakes and streams, cleaning up the tailings from old mines, and ensuring the integrity of our fresh water resources including getting the towns and cities to clean the harmful chemicals out of the waste water before they dump it.

And, as the late Steve Jobs liked to say, one more thing: how are those systems going to be manufactured, and what fuel will they use? Climate change, remember, is the enemy. It’s largely a response to greenhouse gas emissions. So are we going to “defend” against climate change by adding GHG emissions? Hmm.

The digital revolution

Security threats aren’t what they used to be. Social media can now mobilize agents of aggression inside Canada without actual invasion or even external attack. So far, the damage has been slight – except for the victims and their families. It may seem absurd to take a Twitter account or a website seriously on a strategic level. But so far, we’ve managed to get by, treating this phenomenon like the Tsar treated the Decembrists – as a matter for the secret police (the RCMP, CSIS, Bill C-51, etc.)  Is this enough? Hint: Why are there no more Tsars?

Take a different example. A “hack attack” can disable critical national functions on which we depend – whether they are here or elsewhere. Such an attack can also rob us of crucial intellectual property. It can also disrupt intelligent transport system networks and so on. Even if we have adequate anti-hack defences of our own in place, there are interdependencies: a takedown of, say, a major northern region power grid in the US could also blacken out most of Ontario — as we learned when a line failure in Ohio blacked out not only many Northeastern states but also Ontario (but not Quebec) a few years ago.

Satellites, drones, driverless cars, networks, hackers and surveillance are basically here already. Dominating the flows of data and information is the key to controlling territory. We need to be capable of using it for attack and defence even in our most difficult terrain.

But there’s more. How about doing something about the Canadian internet so “infections” don’t spread? Can we build a system that contains viruses, blocks their spread and traces their source?

How are we faring in the development of appropriate technology to enable undetected movement of personnel and equipment, in extreme weather and climate conditions, in weapons innovations? Both the Americans and British have been working on an “invisibility cloak” that can mask human-sized objects (they use materials that can “bend” light). Will it work in the rain? How is our policy thinking and technology development progressing? Does it have the necessary oversight?

And then there’s bad data. Can we build into our plans ways to wash out data that doesn’t need to be kept? Can we find reasonable ways for individuals who are on lists by mistake to get their names off those lists? Can we have some more oversight on the way names are put on lists?

Plus the clean-up.  Can we find greener substitutes for some of the more toxic materials and chemicals associated with digital technology, including those used for defence?


Globalization presents some additional issues. For example, intelligence. We have some foreign intelligence gathering agencies, although as far as we know no actual spook service to conduct clandestine ops abroad, subvert foreign officials, etc. We are probably better at countering the others. One strategic issue for Canada, because we rely for alliances to defend ourselves, is what we can bring to the table that our allies don’t already know about in respect of the intentions, capabilities and on-going activities of other actors in the system, both state and non-state.

At one time, intelligence was mainly about understanding events in the capitals of the great powers. Now? Maybe it depends just as much on knowing what’s going on in chat rooms in the dark web or about the activities of shadow banks that underpin the global financial system, or financial models that, for example, predicted the capital flight from China after its recent currency devaluation.

Real time, Canadian global issues are mainly commercial. We live by our value creation in global supply/transformation chains. What intelligence do we have on these? What about port security? What about port-to-port logistics? What about the accuracy of cargo manifests and their safe carry?

Pipeline transport is another hot issue. A million barrels a day is nearly 700 barrels a minute. That’s 21,000 barrels every half hour. A leak and pretty soon you’re talking real damage, even in so-called “remote” areas. Who’s going to handle clean-ups and pay the compensation? (Hint: neither the equipment nor the expertise nor the funds are ready for this according to some reports. Is it a provincial or federal responsibility?)

Oh, one other thing. Global temperature rise also raises the possibility of new diseases that can cross the species barrier, and increased people-people circulation brought on by globalization raises the probability of human exposure to vector-born infection from pandemics that begin elsewhere and incubate more slowly than it takes to get from there to here in a jetliner. Canada met the challenge of Ebola, but the scale of the epidemic overwhelmed the WHO resources initially available. The next generations of these things could be much worse and much more widely dispersed.

Bottom line

What should be the definition of the national security environment? Think of Parliament’s recent efforts to defend against a lone gunman. How would Ottawa or any other Canadian city do in the face of multiple simultaneous terror attacks such as Paris faced in November 2015?  In addition to mobilizing police and military, the response in Paris required a lot of ambulances and hospitals able to handle the victims. Are we ready?

Taking a holistic view of the security risks Canadians face is the approach I’m suggesting – at least for a review. It seems to me there’s a whole lot more to national security now than in the past. But for people who still like to think about it as old fashioned blood and guts, I offer the following thoughts.

In fighting and winning wars, kinetics used to offer a dependable result; the more physical power you could direct at a target the better the outcome. Is that still true? Or does asymmetric war impose a reversal, such that more military kinetics leads to political defeat? (Hint: sanctuaries and embedding with civil populations, international law, instant global TV access). What is the role of operational intelligence? How should the “operational spend” be apportioned, for example fewer but more precise kinetics and far greater and more accurate intelligence to disrupt an enemy’s organization rather than bomb his infrastructure? How are we fixed for psychological ops? Have we the expertise in cultures and languages for any theatres for which our forces might reasonably be deployed?

Further. On intelligence and psy-ops, if at the strategic level future conflict (i.e. conflict short of “war” in the legal sense) is to resemble the kind of permanent “conspiracy” experienced by the Renaissance princes, do we need additional safeguards at home to protect our democracy?

Oh, just one more thing. On command structure. If Canada needs a fully coordinated approach to national security, perhaps it needs some kind of central command so that the parts can serve a single, coherent strategy in our domestic space. Or maybe it already has one and they just haven’t bothered to let Canadians in on it. Why would we need to know? Perhaps it would be a good idea to overhaul security classification as well.

Just thinking.


Feature image: Montreal, worth protecting (










Guy Stanley

Dr. Guy Stanley is currently a research fellow in the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. His background is in diplomatic history and international commerce.

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