March 29, 2022

-Global News

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service now devotes almost as much attention to “ideological” domestic extremism as they do religiously-motivated terrorism, marking a paradigm shift in the spy agency’s priorities.

Documents reviewed by Global News suggests CSIS has gone from closing its right-wing extremism desk in 2016 to spending almost as much time and resources tracking “ideological” domestic extremism as religious terrorist groups like Daesh and al-Qaeda in 2021.

“Ideologically” motivated violent extremism (IMVE) — the service’s catch-all term, which includes far-right and white supremacist-motivated violence — is “fast approaching parity with the threat from religiously-motivated violent extremism in terms of investigative resources deployed” in Canada, CSIS Director David Vigneault wrote in late 2021.

“The pandemic has been seized upon by extremists, who are exploiting the situation to spread disinformation, amplify anti-authority narratives, and promote acts of violence,” Vigneault wrote in a letter to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino in late 2021, adding IMVE “disproportionately targets equity-deserving groups in Canada.”

“CSIS is actively investigating IMVE threats, and when appropriate, mitigating these threats through the use of threat reduction measures.”

Despite the renewed attention to right-wing extremism — in the past CSIS devoted resources to tracking far-right groups before the 9/11 attacks dramatically shifted Western intelligence priorities — Vigneault warned Mendicino the agency’s ability to keep up with the “evolving” threat is at risk.

CSIS has repeatedly asked the government to update its powers, after a series of high-profile confrontations with the Federal Court and increasing public appeals from Vigneault himself.

“Simply put, CSIS’ authorities have not kept pace with technology and the threat environment. As a result, the service’s ability to effectively meet the government’s intelligence needs, as well as Canadians’ expectations, is diminishing,” Vigneault warned.

“To ensure public understanding and support, the work to modernize CSIS’ authorities must be transparent. Canadians have a right to know why … CSIS should collect, exploit and use data to advance its national security investigations and why CSIS needs tailored warrant powers. A well-informed public discussion on what is needed for CSIS to protect Canada and Canadians in the 21st century will ensure continued trust by the public in CSIS.”

Despite the dire picture painted by the CSIS director, and the government’s rhetoric around addressing the threat of domestic extremism, granting intelligence agencies greater authority to investigate domestic threats can be a controversial exercise.

Mendicino’s office did not respond to Global’s questions as of press time.

Old threats, new methods

If CSIS was looking for a case study to emphasize Vigneault’s warning in late 2021, they could do worse than the convoy protests that paralyzed Ottawa and multiple Canada-U.S. border crossings last February.

While convoy defenders loudly proclaim the illegal protests were non-violent, the Ontario Provincial Police determined the Ottawa occupation to be a national security threat as early as Feb. 7. The federal government invoked emergency powers the following week to allow police to freeze convoy funding and clear the protests.

The online nature of the physical occupation, where organizers broadcasted their manifestos and intentions publicly and livestreamed their participation, led to criticism that police and intelligence agencies didn’t identify the threat they posed or failed to take the organizers’ aims seriously. If journalists and anti-hate activists could identify the prime movers in the convoy and their intentions, why couldn’t the much better-resourced police and intelligence agencies?