March 31, 2023

Explainer: How does Canadian intelligence protect us against foreign interference?

History professor John Ferris summarizes Canada’s approach to intelligence gathering, subversion, and our reliance on allies
John Ferris
In 2018, John Ferris was named an authorized historian in chronicling the history of the U.K.'s communications intelligence agency. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Since the start of 2023, Canadians have been seeing more and more headlines regarding Chinese subversion of Canadian elections, foreign interference and espionage, and leaked Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) documents.

These stories opened the floodgates for a lot of questions about Canada’s security intelligence. However, since Canada prefers to keep its intelligence services secret, Canadians are left with fewer public intelligence records than our American or British counterparts.

So, what do we know about Canadian Intelligence?

Unlike the United States' CIA or Britain's MI6, Canada has no human intelligence bureau. What we do have instead is signals intelligence, which is the monitoring, interception and analysis of electronic transmissions such as radio and radar signals, gathered by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) as well as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). However, other organizations such as the Canadian Border Security Agency, the RCMP and the Canadian Forces have intelligence purposes.

“CSE and CSIS are in the third rank among world intelligence agencies, alongside those of France and Germany. Their foreign partners respect CSE and CSIS, but view Canadian policy toward intelligence as legalistic and naïve,” says Dr. John Ferris, PhD, a history professor at the University of Calgary and a fellow with the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies.

In addition to our organizations, Canada belongs to the world’s leading intelligence-sharing club, the “Five Eyes,” along with Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the U.S. Canada receives far more intelligence than it can generate on its own and makes several leading intelligence powers its allies, rather than potential threats.

However, apart from understanding the agencies with which Canada collects its signals intelligence, we don’t know how far our politicians or government use it, especially in comparison to other countries or states.

A common intelligence practice used by other states is subversion. Subversion is a systematic attempt to undermine a government or political system by persons working from within.

“Many countries, including the United States, use intelligence services to conduct subversion in foreign countries,” says Ferris. “Canada does not do so through covert means, but hostile states claim that we practice subversion through overt means. For example, Russia regards our backing for Ukraine as subversion of the 'Russian world,' just as the People’s Republic of China regards any Canadian support for Tibetans or Uighurs as attacks on the motherland. Their governments view their subversion of Canada as payback for actions which we believe are good, but they see as bad.” 

And, while many Canadians are familiar with intelligence tactics such as subversion, some are less aware of tactics such as high-altitude surveillance balloons, but that doesn’t mean they are something new. 

“The recent concerns about Chinese spy balloons were hysterical,” says Ferris. “Balloons have collected intelligence in the past, but not significantly so for many years. They can collect signals and images, and are uniquely able to loiter over targets, but are less useful than satellites which monitor signals in Canada every day on an industrial scale. Foreign subversion is a much more alarming issue.”  

One of the largest problems with foreign subversion is it exacerbates classic problems — the inevitable tension between security and liberty; the occupational characteristics of security services, which include paranoia; and the need to monitor Canadians who seem linked to these external threats. 

“In order to withstand threats like subversion, one needs good intelligence services, which Canada has, and also governments willing and able to use them effectively, which often has not been the case. My own impression is that Canadian governments rarely pay attention to intelligence,” says Ferris.   

“The history of Canadian security services is filled with unpleasant events, though its performance has improved in recent decades. However, no matter what is done, Canadian politicians on either side of the political spectrum will say the approach to handling such threats is wrong. Meanwhile, no one protects the victims of subversion — Canadians, especially those of foreign descent.”

Dr. John Ferris, PhD, FRSC, is a professor of history at UCalgary and a fellow with the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies. He is an honorary professor at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University, as well as at Brunel University. He is also an associate member Nuffield College, Oxford. He was commissioned to write the authorized history of the Government Communications Headquarters, the signals intelligence agency of the British government, most famed for breaking the German Enigma cipher machine during the Second World War.

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