A Brief Assessment of Canada’s National Defence Expenditure

In the wake of recent attacks in Quebec and Ottawa that saw the unfortunate and horrifying death of two Canadian soldiers, Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, the Harper government seems poised to introduce new legislation that will strengthen the powers to its intelligence agency. The government tabled Bill C-44 this week which is intended to expand the powers and functioning capabilities of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and now in Canada speculations abound as to the particulars of this legislation and its overall impact on the nation’s domestic and international security measures.

The attacks on Cirillo and Vincent were unsettling and unnecessary to say in the least, but reaction to C-44 seems mixed. The bill was tabled in the House of Commons on Monday by Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, who said in a statement to reporters that it will bring “clarity into the CSIS Act while protecting individual rights [of Canadians].” In addition to amending the CSIS Act, legislation introduced in the bill will also impact the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act as well as the Access to Information Act. These amendments have some in Canada worried that CSIS will be given too much power of surveillance to investigate threats to Canadian security.

Dubbed the “protection of Canada from terrorists act,” C-44 was actually expected to be introduced last week before the attack in Ottawa occurred. The bill will give CSIS the explicit authority to operate “within or outside Canada,” and will boost their powers of surveillance to more effectively investigate potential security threats at home and abroad. The agency will in effect be able to share information on suspected Canadian terrorists with members of the so-called “Five Eyes” group of countries, which includes the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The proposed bill also gives increased protection to confidential sources without having to identify them in court proceedings, even to the judge. In some cases an exception could be made. For example, informants’ identities may in certain cases only be disclosed “if the human source and the [CSIS] director consent to the disclosure of that information.” Under the bill it would be an offence to divulge any information that would lead to the disclosure of the identity of a CSIS employee “who was, is or is likely to become engaged in covert operational activities.” In other words, CSIS employees may in some cases be able to operate under the bill without potential recourse.

After introducing C-44, Blaney made a point to reaffirm in the Commons the reason for new public safety legislation. “The first responsibility of the government is to keep Canadians safe,” he said during question period on Monday. “We will not overreact. But it is also time that we stop under-reacting to the great threats against us.” The fear of an overreaction on part of the government seems to be a real concern for some Canadians. Wayne Easter, the public safety and national security critic for the Liberals, argued this week that Harper’s government has yet to explain in full the reasons why Canada’s spy agency needs more powers. According to Easter, who has long pushed for stronger parliamentary oversight of Canada’s intelligence agencies, the government is obligated “to explain how existing laws are being used or not used.”

The lack of transparency that Easter alludes to is a criticism not new to the Harper government. One month ago we examined the ratification of the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA), which provides a framework of legal obligations and rights meant to enhance foreign investment from China to Canada. The agreement was introduced by the Harper government without first being discussed or debated in the House. For this the Conservatives received much heat in both public and political circles, and their diplomatic maneuvering of late continues to be highly monitored and scrutinized. Critics of the government, ourselves included, have argued that all legislation should be subject to the full democratic process that supports our national system and identity. This argument stands true of any amendments to legislation already in place. Canadians should expect that all legislation, in accordance with the principles of our democratic body, be processed through the House in a manner that is sufficiently transparent.

Canada’s foreign and domestic security policies have remained largely unchanged for a number of decades, save certain obvious evolution in reaction to weapons technology and proliferation. During the Cold War it was usual practice to review national security measures in Canada, but defence policy reviews fell out of favour beginning in the 1970s when the Liberals under the tutelage of Pierre Trudeau began to decrease the total national defence expenditure. The widely read defence white papers, which described in detail the national aims and policy themes of the Department of National Defence in relation to Canada’s sovereignty and independence, were no longer prioritized as the government reallocated funds to serve other areas of national need.

It remains to be seen how recent changes to the global economy and security environment will impact Canada moving forward. But today we may for the first time since the Cold War be facing the need for a significant review of our country’s national defence system. Much has changed in the interim, but Canada’s security continues to face both military and non-military threats that come both from outside and from within our national borders. The provision for adequate Canadian defence resources may once again be a matter of first priority sooner rather than later.