From National to Shared Security

An historian at Trent University recently uncovered the fact that in 1951 the Prime Minister of Canada authorized a top secret surveillance program about which Parliament was kept in the dark. The program, code-named “Picnic”, involved spying on Canadians felt to be “subversive” for reasons including in some cases that they were homosexuals. In 1954, Canada’s involvement in the Korean War, which had resulted in special powers to create national security programs like Picnic, was over. Yet the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) lobbied for, and won, the ability to maintain the “emergency” wiretapping program indefinitely. Even today Canada’s Privy Council Office refuses to release key information about the program.1

In 2015, the present government came to power promising to “repeal the problematic elements” of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 (Bill C-51), and to increase oversight of Canada’s national security agencies.2 A consultation on national security was launched, and Canadian Friends Service Committee made a submission.3 The historical information about Picnic highlights several trends we discussed in our submission, ones that appear to be getting worse.

The first trend is to keep our elected representatives uninformed. A recently proposed law aims to create a Parliamentary oversight committee for national security agencies for the first time. But the law contains so many loopholes that the oversight committee would not be able to do its job.4 The importance of oversight could not be greater. Multiple Canadians have been tortured after inaccurate information about them was shared by Canadian national security agencies. More than one of these agencies has also been found to break the law over long periods of time, and apparently without consequence.5

A second familiar trend is that once surveillance powers have been created, agencies like the RCMP will do what they can to maintain and expand on these powers, calling them important for national security. Evidence that this is true is never made public, and it is unclear if the necessity of these surveillance powers is ever systematically reviewed. Clearly this issue has gotten much worse today, as greatly increased surveillance through new technologies and new laws like Bill C-51 make it possible to spy on just about everyone all the time. Is this bulk data approach a useful way to think about and act for security?

A third familiar trend is to label people as threats not due solely to a likelihood that they will engage in violence, but due, at least in some cases, to prejudiced discomfort with them. The scant information available about Picnic shows that some were targets of surveillance in part because of their sexual orientation. We noted in our submission that in today’s national security thinking:

“The assumption appears to be that violence committed by members of certain religions, creeds, races or ethnicities is ‘radical’ and worthy of particular attention and resources to prevent, while violence committed by others is not…

Canada’s responses to all forms of violence should be proportionate to the harm created by that violence, and should seek to prevent and reduce harm for all, taking great care not to increase harm deliberately or accidentally.”

A fourth trend underlying the issues mentioned above is the limited understanding of “security”. The idea seems to include that Canada’s security can only be attained through circumventing democratic institutions and undermining individual human rights. We strongly disagree, noting that prevention of violence:

“must be prioritized, recognizing that it is never going to be 100% effective. If prevention is largely effective and does not increase harm, those should be taken as measures of major success….

“Security should be re-conceptualized as ‘shared security’, meaning that no community or country is secure on its own, and our security will be greatest when all communities are most secure, and therefore least steeped in the conditions that lead to violence. This approach seeks to engage with other parties involved in conflicts, rather than distancing from them and escalating hostilities. It recognizes the complex and interrelated nature of emerging threats, which must be addressed on multiple fronts at once, not by attacking only certain symptoms, like violence.

“The security of majority populations cannot be won through state pressure on and further alienation of certain communities. Shared security means working to meet the human needs and uphold the human rights of all.”
Matthew Legge is CFSC’s Peace Program Coordinator. You can stay up to date on the issues raised in this article through the weekly email newsletter of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group:

  1. Seglins, Dave and Rachel Houlihan. (2016, December 15). Federal cabinet secretly approved Cold War wiretaps on anyone deemed ‘subversive,’ historian finds.; and Documents reveal how St-Laurent government extended secret Cold War wiretapping.
  2. Liberal Party of Canada Platform.
  3. Read our full submission at
  4. International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group. (2016, November 14). Bill C-22: An Inadequate, Worrisome, and Insufficient Bill.
  5. Boutilier, Alex. (2016, November 3). CSIS program illegally spied for a decade, judge rules. Toronto Star.; and Bronskill, Jim. (2016, January 28). CSE Broke Privacy Laws With Metadata Sharing, Watchdog Says. The Canadian Press.