Canadian Security Magazine

Anti-authority narratives could tear ‘fabric of society,’ intelligence report warns

The Canadian Press   

News extremism foreign interference national security

By Jim Bronskill

Threats against politicians have become “increasingly normalized” due to extremist narratives prompted by personal grievances and fuelled by misinformation or deliberate lies, warns a newly released intelligence report.

The report, prepared by a federal task force that aims to safeguard elections, says the Canadian violent extremist landscape has seen the proliferation of conspiracy theories, a growing lack of trust in the integrity of the state and more political polarization.

Baseless theories, disinformation and misinformation have spread to larger audiences, exposing online users to a vast network of narratives that undermine science, systems of government and traditional figures of authority, the report says.


“Violent rhetoric routinely fixates on elected officials — with particular hostility towards high-profile women.”

The Canadian Press used the Access to Information Act to obtain the June 2023 report by the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force. Some passages in the “Secret / Canadian Eyes Only” assessment were considered too sensitive to release.

The federal body, established in 2019 to protect the electoral process from foreign interference, includes representatives of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cyberspy agency.

The report notes that while domestic terrorism threats are not strictly part of the task force’s focus on foreign meddling, “we recognize the need to provide assessments on this issue.”

The task force weighed the possible threat from violent extremism driven by politics, religion and ideology. It concluded that of the three, a Canadian federal election would “most likely be impacted” by ideologically motivated violent extremism.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” worldview for ideological extremism, the report says. Rather, “threat actors” are driven by a range of grievances, ideas and highly personalized narratives from across the traditional left-to-right-wing spectrum, often deeply influenced by conspiracy theories.

Grievances may be fuelled by elements including xenophobia, gender-related issues or general anti-government sentiment.

It says while threats against politicians peak during election cycles or major political announcements, RCMP information showed that monthly and annual averages had remained relatively stable since September 2021.

Ideologically motivated violent extremists “have increasingly normalized threats against prominent public figures outside the election cycle,” the report concludes.

All threats to the prime minister and other parliamentarians reported to the RCMP are triaged and assessed for a link to national security, the task force adds. About 20 per cent of reported threats to the prime minister and 13 per cent of those against parliamentarians between September 2021 and mid-2023 met the RCMP’s national security threshold.

While extremist narratives and conspiracy theories do not usually manifest themselves as an act of serious violence, “they have the potential to negatively affect the fabric of Canadian society,” the report says.

The RCMP did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

CSIS spokesman Eric Balsam said the 2023 assessment “remains unchanged.”

CSIS director David Vigneault told a House of Commons committee this month the spy service is devoting about half of its counter-terrorism resources to investigate the threat of ideologically motivated violent extremism. “We’ve seen a number of the threat vectors increasing,” he said.

The task force report says anti-authority extremists have “almost certainly leveraged” social media posts about foreign interference in Canadian elections to “reinforce pre-existing narratives around the inherent corruption of government institutions in Canada.”

However, a narrative on the scale of the “stolen election” rhetoric that prompted the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol has not emerged in the Canadian political landscape, the report notes.

On the question of foreign interference, a broader companion report says that as of last June the task force had seen no evidence of a significant cyberthreat to Canadian electoral processes or election infrastructure from state actors.

Political parties, candidates and their staff continue to be targeted by cyberthreat activity, however, and this may take the form of online espionage, disinformation or fabricated videos known as deepfakes, the report adds.

Overall, the task force says “sophisticated, pervasive and persistent” meddling efforts constitute a serious threat to Canada’s national security and the integrity of its democratic institutions.

For certain foreign states, foreign interference activities “are part of their normal patterns of behaviour in Canada and often peak during election periods.”

Such interference, given its clandestine or deceptive nature, often takes place in a legal grey zone, where there are no laws regulating the activities or where interpretation of them is ambiguous, the report adds.

Canada is a high-priority foreign interference target due to its role in key global alliances and bodies, enjoying a “robust international reputation” that can be used or co-opted to help legitimize foreign state interests.

In addition, Canada’s advanced, knowledge-based economy is attractive to foreign states seeking to develop their own scientific and technological expertise, the report says. Finally, Canada is home to large diaspora communities, which some foreign states try to monitor, control or use to further their own strategic goals.

“Foreign states develop important relationships in Canada year round to further their own political platforms, and will use these relationships to their advantage notably around election time.”

Under a federal protocol, the heads of key national security agencies would inform a special panel of senior bureaucrats of an interference attempt during an election period.

There would be a public announcement if the panel determined that an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.

There was no such announcement in 2021 or concerning the 2019 election. In both ballots, the Liberals were returned to government with minority mandates while the Conservatives formed the official Opposition.

Allegations of foreign interference in these elections — suggestions fuelled by anonymous leaks to the media — led to a chorus of calls for a public inquiry.

The commission of inquiry, led by Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue, resumes hearings on Wednesday.

The hearings will focus on the substance of allegations of foreign interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two general elections.

The commission will hear from over 40 people, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his cabinet, senior government officials, diaspora communities, political party representatives, Elections Canada and the office of the commissioner of Canada elections.

An initial report of findings from the commission is due May 3.

The inquiry will then shift to broader policy issues, looking at the ability of the government to detect, deter and counter foreign interference targeting Canada’s democratic processes. A final report is expected by the end of the year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2024.

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