Did CSIS miss a possible subversion threat to Canada? New Ukraine update


I will convene cabinet to use legal authorities [under the State of Emergency] to urgently enact orders that will make crystal clear it is illegal and punishable to block and impede the movement of goods, people and services along critical infrastructure… – Ontario Premier Doug Ford

President Biden is calling on the Government of Canada to use federal powers to end the blockade at the Ambassador Bridge, linking Windsor and Detroit, which is causing increasing damage to the “just-in-time” integrated Canada–USA supply chain, while Ontario Premier Doug Ford has belatedly begun to take action in relation to the Ottawa and Windsor protests, bearing in mind the provincial jurisdiction over the administration of justice under Canada’s federal system.

The role of the City of Ottawa Police

The protest convoy excesses are first and foremost a law enforcement issue. Carleton University professor and former CSIS analyst Stephanie Carvin comments on the early inaction by the Ottawa Police as the protest convoy neared Ottawa:

I’m not sure they recognized this as an extremist-led event. And as a result they treated an extremist-led event as a normal political protest and were thoroughly unprepared.

Contrast this inaction to the proactive approaches by the Toronto and Quebec City police forces to forestall the kind of truck blockade they had seen paralyze downtown Ottawa since January 26th.

In the words of Quebec Premier Legault:

We may have benefited from the experience of what happened in Ottawa.

In short, blocking off access routes and preventing the trucks from ever getting to the legislature is infinitely easier than trying to remove them peacefully, after they are entrenched.

Did CSIS miss vital warning signs?

If we did not see it coming, how come? And if we did, how come nothing stopped it?

The above questions are from Marcel Martel of York University, who studies the history of surveillance by the RCMP and CSIS, and are quoted by journalist Tom Spears in an article entitled Why Canadian intelligence agencies never saw the Ottawa trucker blockade coming (ottawacitizen.com, 8 February 2022).

CSIS mandate

At this point it is useful to briefly but carefully examine the CSIS mandate, first as summarized on the Government of Canada website, and then by reference to key sections of the agency’s governing legislation.

First the summary version:

CSIS is Canada’s security and intelligence service. Its role is to investigate activities suspected of constituting threats to the security of Canada and to report these to the Government of Canada. CSIS may also take measures to reduce threats to the security of Canada in accordance with well-defined legal requirements and Ministerial direction.

CSIS collects and analyzes threat-related information, which is typically disseminated to government partners through intelligence reports and other intelligence products. Key threats include terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, espionage, foreign interference and cyber-tampering affecting critical infrastructure.

Of note in this summary, in addition to the lack of reference to homegrown subversion, is the fact that CSIS not only has the power to collect, assess and disseminate to relevant parties “threat-related” information, but also can take proactive “measures to reduce threats to the security of Canada”.

Turning to the governing legislation, Section 2 of the CSIS Act states:

Threats to the security of Canada means

  • (a) espionage or sabotage that is against Canada or is detrimental to the interests of Canada or activities directed toward or in support of such espionage or sabotage,
  • (b) foreign influenced activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person,
  • (c) activities within or relating to Canada directed toward or in support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or ideological objective within Canada or a foreign state, and
  • (d) activities directed toward undermining by covert unlawful acts, or directed toward or intended ultimately to lead to the destruction or overthrow by violence of, the constitutionally established system of government in Canada,

but does not include lawful advocacy, protest or dissent, unless carried on in conjunction with any of the activities referred to in paragraphs (a) to (d). [emphasis added]

Ceasefire.ca comments:

At this point it is essential to note that lawful protest is not the problem here. The issue is illegal blockades and countless additional illegal actions, including threatening and harassing Ottawa residents and small business staff, incessant horn blaring (ultimately ended by a civil injunction), illegal fuel transfers and storage, illegal encampments, and in the case of the Ambassador Bridge blockage, severe interference with Canada–USA trade.

For more detail on the extremist elements in the convoy leadership, click here.

What did CSIS know about the potential for this type of threat?

The short answer to the question of what CSIS knew about the type of security threat now being posed by the Ottawa blockade and the countless “copycat” activities in other parts of Canada, the most consequential of which is the blockade at the Ambassador Bridge, is that we do not know and likely will not know definitively for some time.

However, according to the Tim Spears article, recently released CSIS briefing notes and Power Point slides indicate that the agency believed:

security threats would likely be from “an extremist lone actor” or small group, with no warning.

In other words, they were not preparing for an event described by Canadian journalist Justin Ling in an 8 February article for the UK Guardian newspaper thusly:

The brazen occupation of Ottawa came as a result of unprecedented coordination between various anti-vaccine and anti-government organizations and activists…

The so-called “freedom convoy” – which departed for Ottawa on 23 January – was the brainchild of James Bauder, an admitted conspiracy theorist who has endorsed the QAnon movement and called Covid-19 “the biggest political scam in history”. Bauder’s group, Canada Unity, contends that vaccine mandates and passports are illegal under Canada’s constitution, the Nuremberg Code and a host of other international conventions.

And, as Tim Spears aptly observed in his Citizen article:

no one foresaw that millions of dollars would come in a couple of weeks from GoFundMe, and later GiveSendGo.

Note also that on Thursday the Government of Ontario won a court order effectively freezing millions of dollars in donations raised for the protesters through the GiveSendGo online platform, the GoFundMe funds having already been “removed” by that online platform.

Hindsight bias

The CSIS documents in question are all from 2019, but the poor preparation of the Ottawa Police as the convoy bore down on Ottawa appears to suggest a lack of timely intelligence.

In Professor Carvin’s view, one problem is “hindsight” bias (or what others might call ‘fighting the last war’):

— the belief that future events will be similar to what we have already seen. Terror attacks in Canada have usually been by one person.

Did CSIS overlook the potential for subversion by Canadians in Canada?

I am sure many of the people who came to Ottawa and left the next day came to peacefully protest and did not have overthrowing the government in mind. But their leaders did, and still do.

Those are the words of Andrew Caddell, a retired senior policy advisor at Global Affairs Canada, writing for the Hill Times on 2 February 2022. In this article Caddell analyzes the six-page, 1,500-word “Memorandum of Understanding” issued as an ultimatum to the Government of Canada by the convoy leaders on 27 January 2022.

In essence this error-laden document calls for “an instruction” to all levels of government to end all vaccine mandates and for the installation of a new government composed of:

the Governor General, Mary Simon, the 105 members of the Senate, and [MOU drafters] James and Sandra Bauder, and Martin Brodman (right-wing QAnon adherents who have called for Justin Trudeau to be charged with treason), who are described as the “Citizens of Canada Committee.”

In her discussion with Tim Spears on the issue of whether CSIS missed the potential for a subversion movement in Canada — that is, a movement intent on the illegal overthrow of the government — Professor Carvin recalls the bad, old history of CSIS counter-subversion work pre-1986:

During the Cold War there were hundreds of thousands of people on government lists as possible threats, many of whom had done nothing other than join a Finnish knitting club kind of thing. This was discovered and it was seen as extremely anti-democratic.

So CSIS dropped all that.

There is no doubt that CSIS is focused on the role of foreign governments in “trolling divisive issues” as the 2021 CSIS report makes clear.

But it seems they may have dropped the ball on Canadian-fomented potential subversion.

Once again we turn to Stephanie Carvin, this time in a 6 February tweet:

Key point: even if amplified [by foreign actors], this is a Canadian movement, pushed by Canadians, participated in by Canadians. These individuals have not been duped – they have agency and have made choices. This is a Canadian, not a foreign issue – even if states wish to take advantage of that.

The jurisdictional complications (sigh)

To be fair to CSIS, we need to acknowledge — as does the Tim Spears article — that the Ontario Provincial Police are the lead investigating agency on far-right issues in Ontario and the City of Ottawa police are the ones actually dealing with that city’s convoy protest.

Carvin surmises:

It’s possible that government agencies knew who they were dealing with, but the required response was just too hard to organize in a period of time.

Professor Stephen Hewitt, a former Ottawa resident, comes back to the issue of “hindsight bias”:

I agree that part of their job is to anticipate. But one of the ways they anticipate is by looking at the past. And at the moment the trend is clearly to lone-actor terrorists, people acting on their own.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

Well, that may well have been the “trend”. But it seems safe to assume that now CSIS will be dusting off its counter-subversion manuals, with a view, we fervently hope, to finding an appropriate balance between past over- and present under-reach in the process.

Removal of MOU from Canada Unity website and social media pages

We are immediately withdrawing the MOU as we do not want any unintended interpretations to continue. – Canada-unity.com

It seems that key convoy organizer and MOU drafter James Bauder is also beginning to realize the dangerous waters in which he is now swimming and has removed all trace of the MOU’s contents from his website and related social media pages, along with his own profile.

This may not be the end of the Ottawa blockade, but it would certainly seem to be the beginning of the end. After all, even erstwhile convoy cheerleader Candice Bergen, interim leader of the federal Conservative Party, has called on the protesters to “take down the blockades”.

Whither Canada?

We call on the Government of Canada, the appropriate parliamentary committees and CSIS itself to undertake a thorough review of the Ottawa, Windsor, Coutts (Alberta) and other related blockades, with a view to learning how better to equip competent authorities at all levels of government to prevent unlawful activity, including potential subversion, without endangering the fundamental Canadian freedoms of “opinion and expression” and  “peaceful assembly”.    

The meaning of freedom

For an impassioned article on the meaning of freedom, see Whose freedom is the ‘freedom convoy’ fighting for? Not everyone’s (Gerald Walton, the conversation.com, 6 February 2022).


Diplomacy continues

Despite an even greater level of military posturing and media hype over the alleged imminence of war between Russia and Ukraine, this week saw increased diplomacy at several levels, including French President Macron’s efforts to move forward on the Minsk agreements. An article in the New York Times begins:

European diplomats are exploring whether a seven-year-old negotiating channel, initially intended to resolve a conflict in eastern Ukraine, can be repurposed to calm a wider crisis.

Macron’s efforts seem finally to have ended the absurd mainstream media silence over the Minsk accords, as evidenced by, for example, their lengthy examination in an 8 February 2022 article in the New York Times entitled What are the Minsk Accords, and Could They Defuse the Ukraine Crisis?

For a non-paywalled article, see Aljazeera’s Ukraine-Russia crisis: What is the Minsk agreement?, which begins:

French President Emmanuel Macron has pointed to the 2015 Minsk Agreement between Kyiv and Moscow as the blueprint for a breakthrough in the Ukraine crisis.

“Strategic blunder” at heart of Ukraine crisis

For more insight into the issue of NATO enlargement as it was conceived in the 1990s, see The Strategic Blunder That Led to Today’s Conflict in Ukraine” by Rajan Menon (thenation.com, 9 February 2022).

And for a keen analysis of Russia’s new invocation of the immediate post-Cold War thinking on a cooperative security architecture for Europe — revolutionary ideas that were doomed by NATO enlargement — see Ukraine: Spheres, Orbits & Thoughts on Neutrality (capebretonspectator.com, 2 February 2022) by Professor Sean Howard.


For a lively discussion on Ukraine, including sparring over whether the Minsk accords are alive or dead, see Canada and the Russian-Ukrainian Crisis (Unpublished Media).

Moderated by Ed Hand, and featuring guests CGAI fellow Andrew Rasiulis, retired diplomat Gilles Breton, Balsillie School Professor Alexander Lanoszka and RI President Peggy Mason, click on the video link below to access it:

Photo credit (Wikimedia images).

Ceasefire.ca is a public outreach project of the Rideau Institute.

Tags: Ambassador Bridge, Canadian Security Intelligence Agency (CSIS), GiveSendGo, GoFundMe, intelligence, Justin Ling, Minsk agreements, Professor Stephanie Carvin, State of Emergency, subversion, trucker convoy, Ukraine, Unpublished