Blue Line

Canada’s Counter-terrorism strategy

October 25, 2013  By Michael Hull

2244 words – MR

Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy

by Michael Hull

Key to the success of Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy is the ability of the RCMP, CBSA and CSIS to integrate through reliable effective intelligence management and data sharing. The federal government acknowledged this in its publication


(page 9).

Unfortunately, this has been identified as an Achilles heel with regards to Canada’s current system.

{An analysis}

Although, on the surface, it appears Canada is adequately prepared for terrorist threats, there are many critics who would argue otherwise. Former Canadian Navy Commodore Eric Lerhe <1> notes that Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy still possesses a number of shortcomings. “However impressive all this may be, there is mounting evidence that progress has stalled in the coordination of this massive counter-terrorism effort.”

David T. Jones, a senior official at the American Embassy in Ottawa in the mid-1990’s, has also publicly expressed his belief that our current counter-terrorism plan is lacking. The effort is “stronger on lip-service than on commitment,” said Jones, “and smacks of humouring that half-demented uncle who believes in alien abduction but has a sizeable legacy you don’t want to miss out on.” <2>

A few of the most-notable shortcomings identified by these and other critics include the effects of legal restrictions, integration deficiencies, conflict with Canada’s core values and lack of sufficient funding.

{Legal restrictions}

While efforts have been made to amend Canada’s legal framework to better combat terrorism, it appears that there is still room for improvement. Many of the powers initially introduced through Bill C-36, the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), were highly controversial due to a widely perceived incompatibility with the Charter. As a result, some of the bill’s provisions expired on March 1, 2007 (<Collacott;> p. 15). While the Conservative government urged the renewal of provisions related to preventive arrests and investigative hearings, all three opposition parties were opposed (<Wikipedia,> “Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act”).

Furthermore, although the ATA was intended to provide law enforcement and the legal system with the ability to take greater action against those responsible for terrorist activities, it appears that this area still requires refinement. A prime example was demonstrated by the Air India disaster investigation, which cost an estimated $130 million, took almost 20 years to complete and resulted in no convictions.

“…It is clear from the outcome of the Air-India bombing trial in March 2005 that the Canadian justice system is not up to the task of dealing with terrorists” (<Collacott;> p. 10).

Collacott (p. 8) also points out that as of 2006, only one person in Canada had been charged with terrorism and the prosecution occurred under the Criminal Code rather than the ATA. Although two individuals were sentenced under the act in 2010 for their involvement in the 2006 Ontario terrorism case,<3> this pales in comparison to countries like the United States that, as of 2004, “… charged more than 310 persons in terrorist-related cases and won 179 convictions” (<Collacott;> p. 9).

{Integration deficiencies}

A critical piece to Canada’s national security strategy is the ability for all key organizations to efficiently integrate and effectively manage and share intelligence. Former Canadian Navy Commodore Eric Lerhe (p. 6)
notes that a lack of integration within Canada’s current strategy can be attributed to three factors in particular: inadequate budgets, bureaucratic “turf wars” and technological shortcomings. Following a number of reviews, the federal government formally acknowledged the need to improve upon its current system in this respect: “The lack of integration in our current system is a key gap that has been recognized by the Auditor General of Canada” <4>.

Through the Office of the Auditor General of Canada’s 2009 report of intelligence and information sharing within Canada’s national security program, a number of these shortcomings were identified, including the “…poor sharing of information between government departments” in addition to the “…inoperability… of systems to support data sharing” <5>.

Legal barriers continue to hamper the current system and these have also proven to be a significant challenge to Canada’s intelligence management and information sharing. The report also identified, “…16 instances where departments and agencies have reported legal barriers to information sharing” <5>.

A key legal barrier to effective information sharing concerns Canada’s (which can additionally be viewed as a result of legal restrictions). While Lerhe (p. 9) notes that a strong act is unquestionably needed, it does limit the type and amount of critical data Canadian government agencies can transfer and share. He goes on to explain that most government agencies outline that there is no “duty to share” information when national security is at stake (p. 11).

Of further concern is that many officials within Canada’s key counter-terrorist entities sense that sharing information with other departments present a “high legal risk” (p. 11). Additional shortcomings with regards to poor integration have also surfaced and Boer <6> highlights the negative effects turf battles have had on the effectiveness of Canada’s ability to combat terrorism, specifically with regards to the traditional inability of CSIS and the RCMP to work together during the Air India investigation. The development of a number of integrated units have been initiated in an effort to alleviate this problem.

The importance of improving upon the current system should not be taken lightly and, according to Lerhe (p. 12), progress and the coordination and data sharing – the ‘connecting the dots’ functions – will define success or failure in our terrorist response. In his argument, Lerhe (p. 1) draws a comparison between the current status of the counter-terrorist system in Canada to that of pre-9/11 United States, noting that attacks in the US could have been thwarted had information been better shared between its key agencies (i.e. “connecting the dots”). While the federal government has made many recommendations and appears to be attempting to remedy the current system, a comparison such as this is a strong argument in favour of addressing integration deficiencies in a timely fashion.

{Conflict with Canada’s core values}

While Canada is a country that prides itself on upholding the values of democracy, human rights, respect for the rule of law and pluralism, <7> some argue that an over-emphasis on these values has created an environment in which it is difficult to successfully prosecute terrorists. This was most evident during the acquittal of the accused in the Air India bombing trial which, “…suggested to many Canadians that their justice system was often more concerned about protecting the rights of those who might be guilty rather than in bringing them to justice” (<Collacott;> p. 11). The very title of Canada’s first-comprehensive statement regarding its security policy is even considered by many to be a reflection of the government’s ambivalence towards security issues.

(<Collacott; p. 17).

Another argument exists with respect to immigration and multi-culturalism, two values traditionally held in high regard within Canadian society. While tolerance and being an open society has certain benefits, some individuals believe that Canada’s border, immigration and refugee policies require tightening since this, “…makes this country distinctly vulnerable to infiltration by international networks” (<Collacott;> p. 5). Although Canada prides itself on these important ideals, finding a way to appropriately protect Canadian citizens from future terrorists while upholding these key values will continue to maintain a precarious balance.

{Lack of sufficient funding}

In addition to the above-noted shortcomings, several other areas should be addressed in the near future. One critical factor that has implications for all other aspects of Canada’s security strategy (including integration issues, as noted previously) is a lack of financial investment on the part of the government and “…there is the broader question of whether the Canadian government is prepared and able to commit the resources required to bring the threat of terrorism reasonably under control” (<Collacott;> p. 15). Perhaps no stronger critic of this exists than that of the United States, as expressed in 2005 by United States Congressman Mark Souder (<Collacott;> p. 25):

Perhaps the US opinions deserve some merit, as a lack of funding and resources seems to permeate some of the organizations deemed most essential to Canada’s strategy. With regards to the CBSA, Canada is frequently criticized, particularly by the US, that its borders are far too lax.

Supporting this premise, the CBSA recently released an internal risk evaluation memo noting that, of the 160 border crossing posts, there is only one Canadian on duty at 103 of the sites (<Collacott;> p. 26). The RCMP has also stressed the impact a lack of resources as a result of inadequate funding could have, noting the following in a 2004 internal report.

(Collacott; p. 16).

Many have argued that the role of CSIS also falls short of what is required due to a lack of funding and resources, particularly with regards to its involvement abroad. “Since the late 1990s, the different governments have bounced the idea of a Canadian foreign intelligence service back and forth but have never been able to settle on whether or not they want to set one up…” (Boer; p. 250) Rimsa <8> further supports these claims and states the following:

<…like many of our intelligence agencies, bureaucracy, politically motivated government policies and resource constraints due to budget restrictions have greatly affected CSIS. This is alarming. There is no more important role for government than ensuring the security of its citizens. We, as Canadians, must never lose sight of this.>


The federal government appears to have made considerable strides in recent years with regards to its counter-terrorism strategy but acknowledges that its approach is continually evolving and will require ongoing review, maintenance, coordination and further development <9>. With this in mind, attention to some of the above issues will prove critical to the future success of Canada’s strategy and, ultimately, the safety of its citizens.

Perhaps one of the most important factors affecting the development of an effective and stable strategy relates to Canada’s overall attitude about terrorist threats. Although former public safety minister Vic Toews has noted that Canada “…cannot afford complacency in the face of a complex and evolving threat,” <10> Canada has frequently been criticized for appearing ambivalent and apathetic towards terrorism.

(Collacott; p. 18).

Canada has been more fortunate than many other countries with regards to being a victim of terrorist attacks and it is therefore essential that it promptly undertake pre-emptive efforts to strengthen and improve upon its current counter-terrorism strategy.

Retired Central Intelligence Agency Officer David Rubin <11> believes that Canada’s efforts against all types of terrorism have been modest to date and he stresses that it could be costly should its governments, public and military continue with their complacency by failing to treat the issue of terrorism with the high level of importance that it requires.


{Editor’s note:} This is an edited excerpt of Hull’s essay written for his University of St. Andrews Certificate in Terrorism Studies International Policing module.


  1. Lerhe, Eric, “Connecting the Dots” and the Canadian Counter-terrorism Effort – Steady Progress or Technical, Bureaucratic, Legal and Political Failure?, Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, 2009; p. 1

  2. Collacott, Martin, “Canada’s Inadequate Response to Terrorism,” Fraser Institute Digital Publication, February, 2006; p. 15

  3. Wikipedia, “2006 Ontario Terrorism Plot.”

  4. Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy; p. 9

  5. Office of the Auditor General of Canada (2009) “Chapter 1: National Security Intelligence and Information Sharing,” 2009 March Status Report.

  6. Boer, Peter, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Folklore Publishing, 2010; p. 74

  7. Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy; p. i

  8. Rimsa, Kostas, Spy Catchers, cited in Hamilton, Dwight, “Inside Canadian Intelligence,” Dundurn, 2011; p. 50

  9. Building Resilience Against Terrorism; p. 26

  10. Ibid.; Foreward

  11. Hamilton, Dwight, Know Your Enemy, cited in Hamilton, Dwight, “Inside Canadian Intelligence,” Dundurn, 2011; p. 23

  12. Ibid.

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