Book Review: Stand on Guard

Stephanie Carvin. Stand on Guard: Reassessing Threats to Canada’s National Security. University of Toronto Press, 2021

By: /
28 April, 2021
The funeral procession for Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in Hamilton, ON, on October 28, 2014. Cirillo was shot and killed while on duty near Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Getty Images

Any book that nudges Canadians out of our often-sanguine view of the dangers facing this country, and our complacency in the face of those dangers, deserves our attention. Stephanie Carvin’s Stand on Guard: Reassessing Threats to Canada’s National Security is such a book.

Readers may recognize Carvin’s name from her columns in the Globe and Mail or from her Intrepid podcast and blog. A former federal national security analyst and consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense, Carvin now teaches international relations at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson’s School of International Affairs, specializing in security matters and international law. Stand on Guard demonstrates this breadth of experience, revealing an author who appreciates nuance and understands history, and who scrutinizes risks to Canada against contemporary global trends. It’s an accessible and sober account of the changing nature of the threats facing this country.     

Following a brief introduction to the basics of national security in Canada — what constitutes a legitimate threat, which agency does what — the book settles into straight-ahead chapters on the nature of the threats we face and which our intelligence and security services are tasked with monitoring and answering. For example, in the chapters on violent extremism we learn that even though “most attacks in Canada, especially since 9/11, have been by those born in Canada or individuals who have spent the vast majority of their lives here,” Canada “has spent increasing amounts of time, money, and energy on securitizing immigration and the border.”

In the chapter on cybersecurity, we read about an unusual speech Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director David Vigneault made to Canadian business leaders in 2018 in which he stated that while terrorism remained the largest threat to public safety, “other national security threats — such as foreign interference, cyber threats, and espionage — pose greater strategic challenges” to this country. To drive this point home, Carvin adds that “between July 2016 and July 2017 federal cyber-defences blocked an average of 474 million ‘malicious cyber activities’ per day” (emphasis added). 

Other chapters are devoted to espionage, the economy, clandestine foreign influence and disinformation. Carvin is especially strong on the seriousness of these last three.  

“Carvin’s book is a plea that citizens take Canada’s national security more seriously than we have of late.”

But Carvin’s book is more than a reminder that the world is not always a friendly place. It is also a plea. It asks that citizens — and, by extension, our elected officials and the security and intelligence services they oversee — take Canada’s national security more seriously than we have of late. “Canada finds itself in the most complex threat environment since the Second World War,” Carvin writes. “Global leadership appears to be in flux, and the international order that defends the rules and norms under which Canada has prospered are no longer guaranteed.” Her point isn’t to scare us but to remind us of our democratic responsibilities. 

And Canadians need reminding. As a proxy for the seriousness with which Canadians take national security, Carvin cites a 2018 study which found that “the majority of Canadians could not name either core intelligence collection agency when prompted. Only 30 per cent of Canadians could name CSIS and a shocking 3 per cent could name the CSE (Communications Security Establishment).” It’s time to wake up. 

In the chapter on the economy and national security, Carvin details the ways in which China operates in Canada to gain geo-economic advantage. Sometimes it works clandestinely. China extracts information from Canadian businesses and governments in order to steal intellectual property and gain competitive advantages in strategic industries. It also gathers records of Canadian employees and customers so it can cultivate “insiders”: individuals from within organizations who may “be self-motivated (betrayal), recruited (bribed), or coerced (blackmailed)” into pursuing Chinese interests.

China also employs legitimate tactics. It uses foreign direct investment, state owned enterprises and research dollars to obtain technology transfers, advanced research and development innovations and other assets. In either case, these activities are a risk to Canadian productivity and economic success. As a medium-sized country, with a free-market economy that’s dependent on trade, what are we to do about these types of threats?

The chapter on disinformation and threats to democratic institutions likewise points out a thorny issue: authoritarian states, such as Russia, have succeeded in using relatively open western digital information technologies to advance their own political aims. By promoting conspiracy theories, amplifying division and sowing confusion, they are reducing the trust westerners have in our institutions and further polarizing ourselves from one another. “Should Canada enact strict penalties against social media content?” Carvin asks. “Should Canada keep an American approach, which largely leaves these decisions in the hands of the private sector? Or should it try to define its own legislation/regulatory approach, working with other like-minded countries to do so?” 

Those looking for specific answers to these and other questions will be disappointed. Carvin offers no quick solutions. Her hope is that Canadians start looking at these issues through the lens of 21st-century security concerns, and not, as in the two examples above, solely as business or free-speech matters. She prefers the traditional professor’s role of asking questions and reframing the conversation so that we may formulate our own answers. 

It’s true that Canadians haven’t had to think particularly hard about national security for a long time. We’re protected by three oceans and share a continent — plus many interests and values — with the most powerful country on earth. But Stand on Guard also points to other reasons for this passivity. 

Although she is too diplomatic to say it out loud, Carvin suggests that a lack of political will among our elected officials and senior civil servants is partly to blame for our apathy. Ask yourself: except for terror attacks, do security risks figure prominently in our public discourse? 

When it does, the conversation is maddeningly secretive. Again and again in the book, readers will encounter examples of official reticence. A small sample: “Although a number of legislative and institutional steps have been taken, it remains difficult for observers to say what, exactly, Canada’s cybersecurity policy is and how it is being implemented.” Or “Just how [Parliament Hill shooter Michael] Zehaf-Bibeau came to adopt an extremist view and why he conducted his deadly attacks in Ottawa on that day is still not publicly known.” Or, “In July 2019 it was reported that CSIS was aware of limited ongoing overt and covert attempts to meddle in the 2019 election … If Russia, or another country, gained information, they did not make it public.” 

Contrast that to this recent story in the New York Times that cites a declassified intelligence report revealing Russian President Vladimir Putin “authorized extensive efforts to hurt the candidacy of Joseph R. Biden Jr. during the election last year, including by mounting covert operations to influence people close to President Donald J. Trump.” Why are Canadian officials so reluctant to share information?   

More troubling is a desire to avoid accountability: when, in 2010, CSIS director Richard Fadden stated publicly that the intelligence services of at least five countries were involved in covert actions in Canada, he was pilloried. “Rather than accept the story,” Carvin recounts, “Members of Parliament forced Fadden to testify in front of a committee and then publicly condemned him in an official report, this despite the fact that what he said was almost certainly true.” Carvin also reminds us that, for decades, Canada was among the few western countries — and alone among its closest allies in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network of Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand and Canada — which lacked a legislative body capable of investigating classified information.

Carvin acknowledges that accountability is improving. New laws have beefed up the capabilities of our security and intelligence agencies, especially in the area of cyber defence and online extremism. New oversight mechanisms have been put in place. And 2019’s Bill C-59 for the first time gives the CSE the power to conduct “active (offensive) cyber operations.” But, she argues, more work needs to be done.

I would have liked it if Carvin had devoted some space to a discussion of our national interests in relation to the security concerns raised in the book. Is Canada’s primary national interest still to maintain a secure but thin southern border? If so, how does that factor in when assessing the new threats to this country?

I would also like to know how good our security and intelligence agencies are. Yes, like baseball, this is probably a business of more swings and misses than hits. But are they batting .250 or .300? There’s a big difference between the two and understanding our relative success would be a good way for Canadians to know more about those tasked with keeping us secure.   

But these are small objections. Serious but not alarmist, Stand on Guard achieves its mission of informing us about the 21st-century risks facing this country. Canadians who read it will understand why, despite the friendly international image we often think we project, bad actors seek to do us harm. Most important, the book gives readers a stronger basis from which to demand accountability from the federal government and the agencies it oversees.    

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