Canada’s main intelligence agency says domestic extremism has risen during the pandemic and it had warned federal agencies that the 2021 federal election could be a target for violence.
In its 2021 annual report released Friday, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service says it hosted a behind-the-scenes conference last year that aimed to warn public officials planning the election about efforts by hostile foreign states to interfere in the campaign as well as threats from radicals who sought to discourage Canadians from voting or use the balloting exercise as a reason to hurt or kill people.
CSIS said the event was designed to inform election planners “on the threats associated with foreign interference, as well as from ideologically-motivated violent extremist actors who viewed the election as an opportunity to discourage Canadians from democratic participation or to plan acts of violence.”
The conference was organized by the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force which included CSIS, the RCMP, the Department of Global Affairs and the Communications Security Establishment, the country’s electronic eavesdropping agency.
CSIS director David Vigneault in a foreword to the report says the COVID-19 pandemic has helped drive the spread of ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE) in Canada. “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, IMVE activity has been fueled by an increase in extreme antiauthority and anti-government rhetoric often rooted in the weaponization of conspiracy theories,” CSIS said.
He declined to identify people but said “a number of Canadian influencers and proselytizers have emerged within IMVE movements. These IMVE influencers promote misinformation and action, including violence.”
Mr. Vigneault cited the trucker convoy protests of early 2022 in the report, even though this was outside the scope of a review of 2021, as he outlined how misinformation and disinformation is harming Canada.
“This type of information manipulation can have serious consequences – eroding trust in our democratic institutions, polarizing public opinion, and amplifying conflicting narratives and messaging. Unfortunately, we have seen firsthand the impacts this phenomenon can have in our own society with the demonstrations that took place across our country earlier this year, including in Ottawa.”
The CSIS director said, however, the key threats to Canada’s national security are not only the risk of violent extremism but also foreign interference, espionage and cyberattacks. All these threats in 2021 “accelerated and evolved,” he said.
The spy agency said efforts by foreign states to steal intellectual property from Canadian researchers and companies were “persistent and sophisticated” and contributed to a “mounting toll on the country’s vital assets and knowledge-based economy.”
It warned foreign interference threats in Canada – to shape public policy or harass dissidents – as well as espionage “increased in scale, scope and complexity” in 2021.
CSIS said “hostile intelligence services” continue to target Canadians for intelligence collection and asset recruitment.
It cited China as one example, saying it relies on “non-traditional collectors … without formal intelligence training” but have subject matter expertise, such as businesspeople or scientists. This includes people recruited through China-funded scholarships, sponsored trips, it said.