Sean SpeerCanadians shouldn’t let their safety relative to other parts of the world lull them into a false sense of security, write Christian Leuprecht and Sean Speer. The federal government needs to make a top priority of measures to snuff out terrorism.

By Christian Leuprecht and Sean Speer, March 7, 2016

A recent open letter to the public safety minister from two former senior civil servants, Luc Portelance of CBSA and Ray Boisvert of CSIS, has placed counter-terrorism and violent extremism near the top of the policy agenda in Ottawa.

The letter reminds the government that the “magnitude and complexity of the [security] threat – and the corresponding strain on our national security organizations – has seldom been so high”, and calls for a “national security reset.” It’s a reminder that national security issues loom large irrespective of which party is in power.

The government is launching consultations on Canada’s counter-terrorism policies. Here are five key ideas to inform a policy reset.

The first is to recognize the threat that violent extremism poses to Canada’s security and our democracy. The incidents in Paris, San Bernardino, Jakarta, and of course, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa are tragic reminders of the pervasiveness of this threat. We must therefore ensure the democratic state has the requisite tools to manage this diffuse challenge and protect safety and social order. Platitudes that suggest a binary choice between freedom and security are of limited value. Security and freedom are complementary – you can’t have one without the other.

Christian LeuprechtSecond, no one argues with calls for greater accountability and transparency with respect to our national security organizations. But the devil is in the details. How far should we expand the remit of the Security Intelligence Review Committee? What’s Parliament’s role? How do we avoid politicizing national security matters? Cosmetic changes that paper over election promises aren’t the answer. The logic of review, oversight, and accountability, and the ends it seeks to achieve, requires careful consideration.

Third, national security agencies need the right tools in their kit. The primary purpose of counter-terrorism policy is to deter and prevent terrorist attacks, not to prosecute perpetrators after they strike. Disruption, however inchoate – such as interfering with phone calls or bank transactions or changing a would-be terrorist’s airline ticket or canceling a car rental – is an important pre-emptive instrument. It protects the Canadian public as well as a would-be terrorist from an act that will forever shape his or her life and their relationship with the broader society. The government shouldn’t weaken CSIS’s ability to use disruption techniques in stopping violence before it happens.

It’s a reminder that national security issues loom large irrespective of which party is in power.

Fourth, the government’s community outreach and counter-radicalization efforts need to leverage federalism and resist a policy of centralization and top-down management. Ottawa should focus on its core competencies such as security intelligence, international cooperation, and the legal and security framework (such as terrorist financing and the listing of terrorist organizations). But safety is ultimately the purview of local communities.

Fifth, the government needs to tell a better story. Much time is spent fingering ideological extremism, yet little effort is undertaken to make Canadian democracy more resilient. Canada’s basic values are not relative. We need to articulate and promote core Canadian values. A pluralistic democracy works precisely because it has common expectations of all its citizens. Those who don’t buy into Canada’s fundamental values and laws don’t have the option of simply “opting out.”

It’s time for the government to renew its focus on violent extremism. We can hope for the best. But hope isn’t much of an agenda. Prevention, pre-emption and mitigation are the right tools for a reset of Canada’s counter-terrorism agenda.

- Leuprecht and Speer are Senior Fellows at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and co-authors of “From a Mandate for Change to a Plan to Govern: Defending Freedom by Effectively Counter Terrorism”.

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