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Liberals face reality of national security in a dangerous world

Trudeau Report Card: Many security promises remain unfulfilled—from better equipping spies to jet purchases
A pilot positions a CF-18 Hornet at the CFB Cold Lake, in Cold Lake, Alberta on Tuesday, October 21, 2014. A long-awaited market analysis into which fighter jet could replace the CF-18s tells the Harper government it can postpone a decision and keep flying the current fleet until 2025, but it will cost roughly $400 million. (Jason Franson/CP)
A pilot positions a CF-18 Hornet at the CFB Cold Lake, in Cold Lake, Alberta on Tuesday, October 21, 2014. A long-awaited market analysis into which fighter jet could replace the CF-18s tells the Harper government it can postpone a decision and keep flying the current fleet until 2025, but it will cost roughly $400 million. (Jason Franson/CP)
A CF-18 Hornet at the CFB Cold Lake on October 21, 2014. (Jason Franson/CP)

A year after a stunning majority win, Maclean’s adds up the stumbles and successes of Justin Trudeau’s government in our Trudeau Report Card. The hard work of delivering on more than 200 campaign promises—and breaking some along the way—has only just begun. Read our analysis of how the Liberals are handling security, immigration, the economy and more in our full Report Card coverage here.

Zakaria Amara spent his waking hours fantasizing about mass murder—and doing everything in his power to pull it off. A university dropout who’d grown obsessed with online jihad videos and avenging the “slaughter” of fellow Muslims, Amara quarterbacked what an Ontario judge would later describe as a “spine-chilling” plot: a trio of truck bombs aimed at the Toronto Stock Exchange, the downtown offices of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and an unnamed military base. By the time he was arrested in June 2006, the 20-year-old had built remote-controlled detonators, recruited a core group of loyal accomplices and purchased what he thought was a hefty load of explosive fertilizer.

In other words, Zakaria Amara is hardly the type of person an aspiring prime minister should rush to defend. Yet there was Justin Trudeau—a few short weeks from election day—stepping up to the plate for a confessed terrorist who dreamed of killing hundreds.

At issue was Bill C-24, a new law introduced by the Conservatives that gave Ottawa the power to strip convicted terrorists of their Canadian citizenship, as long as they were dual nationals. Born in Jordan, Amara had immigrated to Ontario as a teenager, making him the ideal test case in the eyes of Stephen Harper’s tough-on-terror Tories. A handful of other prisoners were put on notice that they were next, triggering a rush of Federal Court challenges in the waning days of the campaign.

For the Liberals, the issue went beyond Amara the person (or anyone else caught in the crosshairs of C-24). As Trudeau repeatedly said to voters, “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”—even if that particular Canadian happens to be the worst possible kind. But the Liberals had something else on their side, too: many security experts did not agree with the law, either. At a time when CSIS and the RCMP were scrambling to stop Canadians from joining terrorist organizations overseas, they asked, “Why would the state strip citizenship from known extremists—essentially banishing them to those very places?”

Post-election, the Liberals wasted little time dismantling the Tories’ revocation law, seeking an adjournment to all the legal challenges, then tabling Bill C-6, which includes a provision that restores citizenship to any terrorist (i.e. Amara) who had it taken away. Bottom line: Trudeau moved quickly to scrap a high-profile national-security law that did nothing to bolster national security.

Next on the Liberal agenda? A long list of other security-related campaign promises encompassing everything from the secret tools our spies should have, to the jets our military should buy and to which war zones our soldiers should be deployed. But one year after the election, and with very little movement on some of those files, it’s hard to see how all those promises will be fulfilled. In a very dangerous world, some were simply too sunny.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen walk away after leaving flowers on the perimiter of the crime scene at the National Memorial in Ottawa on Thursday Oct. 23, 2014. A gunman turned the nation's capital into an armed camp Wednesday after he fatally shot an honour guard at "point-blank" range at the National War Memorial before setting his sights on Parliament Hill. Adrian Wyld/CP
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and wife Laureen leave flowers at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Oct. 23, 2014, one day after a gunman fatally shot an honour guard on duty there. Adrian Wyld/CP

At the top of the uncertain list is Bill C-51, the Harper government’s controversial anti-terrorism law. As it was during the campaign, the bill remains one of the thorniest issues for a Liberal party trying to find the elusive middle ground between maintaining public safety and protecting civil liberties. Rammed through Parliament after two Islamic State-inspired “lone wolf” attacks in October 2014—one in the parking lot of a Canadian Forces recruitment centre in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, Que.; the other against a soldier standing guard at Ottawa’s National War Memorial—the omnibus bill ushered in sweeping changes, including criminalizing the promotion of terrorism, lowering the threshold for putting someone in preventive custody and making it easier for police to obtain so-called peace bonds, which impose bail-like conditions on people who “may” be aspiring terrorists.

Most unsavoury by far was a provision that gives CSIS the authority to “disrupt” activities deemed a threat to Canada’s security—a colossal shift from the agency’s traditional intelligence-gathering role. Spies now have the power to cancel a person’s plane ticket, for example, or order a bank to block a suspicious transaction—as long as agents don’t kill, harm or violate someone’s “sexual integrity,” anything goes. A disruption technique can even violate the Charter, provided a Federal Court judge approves the plan in advance during a closed-door hearing.

When time came to vote for the bill, the Liberals clung to that murky middle ground—supporting C-51 in principle but vowing to repeal “problematic elements” should they win. The Liberal election platform laid out those problematic elements, promising, among other things, to “guarantee” that all CSIS warrants respect the Charter, to define terrorist propaganda “more clearly” and that “community outreach and counter-radicalization” would be a top priority.

So far, the government has moved on just one of those promises, tabling a bill (C-22) that will create an all-party committee to oversee the country’s national-security apparatus, bringing Canada in line with other allies such as Britain and the United States. As for the other “problematic elements,” they remain firmly in place. Instead of introducing their promised legislation, the government has launched yet another series of consultations, asking Canadians to weigh in on our national-security strategies.

“Sometimes you can consult too much,” says Phil Gurski, a retired CSIS analyst who is now president of his own firm, Borealis Threat & Risk Consulting. “The cynical answer is this is a delay tactic.”

It’s a fair assessment. The Liberals have received plenty of classified briefings since taking office, and the Prime Minister also sees what the rest of us see: gruesome attacks in France, Brussels and Burkina Faso. A Windsor, Ont., man, Tamim Chowdhury, identified as Islamic State’s head of military operations in Bangladesh. Another Canadian, Aaron Driver, gunned down by the RCMP after posting an online martyrdom video spotted (thankfully) by the FBI.

Against that backdrop, can the Liberals really afford to scale back some of CSIS’s new-found powers? Imagine if they did, and a critical piece of intelligence was missed as a result. Earlier this month, the spy agency’s civilian watchdog threw another curveball into the debate: in its annual report, the Security Intelligence Review Committee concluded that CSIS has used its new disruption powers responsibly—24 times, at last count. How could Trudeau justify rescinding that power, knowing it’s already been used two dozen times to successfully thwart potential terrorists?

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On the military front, the government has backed itself into a similar corner. In one breath, Trudeau vowed not to buy F-35 fighter jets to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s; in the next, he promised an “open and transparent” competition. But how can the Liberals hold an open competition if they’ve already decided that one model is out of the running? And what if that competition proves the F-35 is the best option for Canada? Would Trudeau veto it because he promised never to buy that bomber?

“The fighter aircraft competition has become so politically charged for a whole number of different reasons,” says David Perry, a senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. “And by making the campaign commitment the Liberals did—specifying that they weren’t going to buy one particular aircraft—they further politically charged the issue by declaring that they had a bias against one of the aircraft.”

The fighter jet question also falls into a much weightier discussion about the very future of the Canadian Forces. The Liberals promised to build a “leaner, more agile” military, and the Department of National Defence has since launched its own round of public consultations (there’s that phrase again) to figure out how best to achieve that goal. At the same time, Trudeau also promised to invest heavily in the Navy, building much-needed icebreakers, supply ships and offshore patrol vessels. How—and how soon—remain the elusive questions.

Of course, world events will also influence what comes next. In one of his highest-profile promises, Trudeau said he would renew Canada’s commitment to the UN’s peacekeeping operations, hearkening back to the nostalgic era of Lester B. Pearson and blue-helmeted soldiers. “Under Stephen Harper, Canada has dramatically scaled back its involvement in peace operations—a decision that could not come at a worse time,” the Liberal platform said. “As the number of violent conflicts in the world escalates, demand for international peace operations has never been greater.”

The government has since pledged $450 million to a new Peace and Stability Operations Program (PSOP), and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has announced that up to 600 soldiers and 150 police officers are poised to deploy to an African conflict zone—as soon as a specific location is chosen. Already stretched thin, the Canadian Forces have committed 450 troops to eastern Europe to help counter Russian aggression, and another 596 in the campaign against Islamic State.

“Looking ahead, the real key issue is going to relate to funding,” Perry says. “They’ve inherited a situation where there is not nearly enough money to go around, and it’s a situation they have to deal with. If they’re not prepared to put in more funding, then they’re going to have to make some tough decisions about how to lower the expectations of what they want the armed forces to do.”

Don’t be surprised to see the Liberals doing exactly that during year two: lowering expectations.

In sum

In the bag: Removing Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets from the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria, in favour of a more “holistic” mission with an emphasis on training local forces.

In progress: The creation of an all-party Parliamentary committee that will oversee the country’s secretive national-security agencies; Bill C-22 is now before the Senate.

In jeopardy: Repealing other “problematic elements” of Bill C-51, the Harper Tories’ anti-terrorism law. Instead of promised legislation, more public consultation.

Maclean’s complete Trudeau Report Card:

OVERVIEW: A bumpy road ahead

ECONOMY: A sluggish start to delivering on promises

ELECTORAL REFORM: A long way from a breakthrough

CLIMATE CHANGE: After flexing muscle, year two will tell

SECURITY AND MILITARY: Lowering expectations

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE: A relationship sours

TOUGHEST TASKS: Immigration, marijuana, home care

LEADERS: The six change influencers to watch in year two