Canada, Intelligence and Security

Canada, Intelligence and Security


As of July 1984, Canadian security and intelligence operations have been the responsibility of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act legislated the formation of CSIS as a replacement for the Security Service, which was part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

In 1984, Canada was one of only a few western democratic nations to have a legislated security and intelligence force, with mandated boundaries to the scope of its operations and a monitoring process to ensure that the agency operates as intended. The Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States is another example of a security and intelligence gathering agency with a conceived purpose and mandate.

Up until the mid-1970s, the task of defining what was to be considered a security risk to Canada and monitoring security developments was the responsibility of the RCMP. The force's Security Service performed security and intelligence gathering functions for the country. At that time, the perceived threat from other nations or organizations was ill defined, and no government security policy was in force. The operations of the Security Service had evolved over time and were the sole responsibility of the RCMP. Decisions regarding the targets of intelligence gathering were the domain of the Security Service. As a result, the government and the citizens of Canada had little knowledge of the measures being taken by the RCMP in the areas of national security and intelligence gathering.

Canadian security agency history. The roots of Canada's intelligence and security agencies date back almost 150 years, to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act of 1864. At that time, Canada had not formally become a country. A number of police forces operated in various regions of what, three years later, would become Canada. In 1864, Sir John A. MacDonald—the prominent political figure of the day and the man who would become Canada's first Prime Minister—assigned certain responsibilities to what was then called the Dominion Police Force. Security related duties included safeguarding the federal government's parliament building and collecting information concerning perceived security threats to Canada (i.e., at that time, the government was wary that the Fenians—a group of Irish nationalists who advocated for the political separation of Ireland from England—were planning to invade Canada from the United States).

The intelligence and security role of the Dominion Police Force increased in scope in 1920, when the Dominion Police joined with another force called the Royal North West Mounted Police (who operated in the western region of the country) to form the RCMP.

Having assumed the role as the country's intelligence and security agency, the RCMPs role and focus shifted over time in response to national priorities. For example, by the time of World War I, the RCMP was actively responding to labor unrest, which was perceived as being anarchist and of Communist origin, and so was viewed as a national security threat.

In 1920, the RCMP's security role was officially sanctioned with the formation of the Criminal Investigation Branch. By the early 1940s, the focus of the Criminal Investigation Branch shifted yet again. Then, in the climate of escalating tensions between the former Soviet Union and the democracies of the western world, the existence of Soviet espionage networks in Canada became known. In 1946, largely in response to these tensions, an official branch of the RCMP dedicated to security and intelligence gathering was created and termed the Special Branch.

From the Special Branch, to the Security Service, to CSIS. Over the intervening decades, the relatively free hand that the RCMP exercised in national security created an atmosphere conducive to excessive and inappropriate behavior. For example, by the 1960s the RCMP was conducting surveillance campaigns on university campuses across Canada, having been convinced that campuses were fostering social unrest. Entertainment personalities and the even the country's tax payer-funded national radio and television system, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, were targeted for the same reason. Indeed, by the late 1960s the RCMP had investigated over 800,000 Canadians for evidence of Communist connections. Additionally, during the 1960s and 1970s, the Special Branch had adopted illegal methods—including theft, break-ins and property damage—to obtain information and foster dissension among groups considered to be security threats.

Recognizing the need for reform of the security framework in the country, the federal government of the day undertook an exhaustive analysis of the RCMP's security framework (in Canada these analyses are termed Royal Commissions). The Report of the Royal Commission on Security was released in 1969. The report recommended that national security should part of a civilian agency and part of the mandate of the country's federal police force.

The government responded in 1970 by forming the Security Service, which, while still part of the RCMP, was "civilian in nature", according to then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. For example, the Director General of the service was a civilian. In reality, however, the bulk of the Security Service was composed of RCMP officers and little changed in the intelligence and security operations community.

In October 1970, a minister in the government of the province of Quebec and the British trade commissioner to Canada were kidnapped by members of a group advocating separation of Quebec from Canada. The minister, Pierre Laporte, was murdered. In the aftermath of these events, the lack of information concerning the radical separatist movement became apparent, as did the illegal nature of some of the Security Service's intelligence gathering activities. The federal government was galvanized into revamping the Security Service. Another examination of national security was commissioned. The MacDonald report, which was released in 1981, echoed the earlier Royal Commission report in calling for a civilian security agency.

In May 1983, the Canadian government introduced Bill C-157, legislation that would create CSIS. This bill proved controversial, with many challenges arising concerning the possible infringement on civil liberties. After revision, Bill C-9 was proclaimed law in July and August, 1984. The responsibility for Canadian security measures and intelligence gathering passed from the RCMP's Security Service to CSIS.

The Mandate of CSIS. The legislation that created CSIS mandated the agency to function as a clearinghouse for security information. In other words, CSIS investigates perceived security threats to Canada and, if warranted, collects, analyzes, and compiles information on the security threats. The agency is able to provide advance warning to various government departments and agencies of individuals or activities that are suspected of being national security threats. The agency's powers end there. CSIS does not have any law enforcement responsibilities. If a department requires further information, CSIS can have an ongoing role in the process.

The legislation that spawned CSIS also mandated the types of security threats that the agency could respond to. Potential security threats take four forms. The first is espionage or sabotage that is actively directed against Canada or either threatens the country's own intelligence gathering efforts or other national interests. An example of such a threat is the gathering of economic, military, or scientific information by a group or government in a way that is illegal or unauthorized.

The second category of security threat involves activities originating in another country that threatens Canadians or the country's interests. An example would be the pressuring of an ethnic community by a foreign organization or government seeking the community member's participation in a terrorist conflict in the home country.

In the third category, security threats originate from within the country. Hostage taking (e.g., the separatist kidnappings of 1970), bomb threats or bombings, and politically motivated violence could threaten the security of Canadians. Also in this category is the use of Canada as a haven for terrorist activities in other countries. The alleged existence of Al-Qaeda terrorist cells in Canada is a current example of a security threat that CSIS is mandated to explore.

Finally, subversive threats to various levels of government in Canada and the country's judicial and economic system are potential security threats.

Regulation of security and intelligence in Canada. CSIS is subject to regular review and monitoring of its procedures and activities. The act that spawned CSIS also created the office of the inspector general and the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC). The inspector general monitors CSIS operations and reports on whether these operations are legal or appropriate to the deputy solicitor general (the second most powerful law enforcement officer in the country) and the SIRC. The SIRC is composed of five people who are selected following consultations with the prime minister and the leaders of all the qualified opposition parties in the House of Commons. The SIRC also conducts a review of CSIS activities and operations each year and reports its finding to the ministers of defense and foreign affairs, and to Parliament. By reporting to Parliament, the fullest public disclosure of the SIRC reports are ensured.

A caveat to the full and open disclosure of information, however, is the denial of cabinet documents to both the inspector general and the SIRC. Thus, some information about CSIS operations is kept secret.

The covert nature of some of Canada's intelligence and security network has been contentious from the establishment of CSIS. Much of the debate surrounding the formation of CSIS centered on its mandate. The idea that the country's security force would have full authorization to deal with "subversion" and "foreign influenced activities" struck some critics as too broad and hazy a frame of reference. Civil libertarians, in particular, argued that the lack of precision in the mandate could allow CSIS to legally infringe on the civil right of Canadians.

The regulatory and monitoring processes seek to minimize these civil rights issues. In response to a legal challenge, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in 1987 that the Canadian Security Intelligence Act does not violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The powers of CSIS. The security and intelligence functions of CSIS apply only within the borders of Canada. Foreign intelligence, including offensive operations in other countries, is not part of the mandate of CSIS.

The federal government guides the powers that CSIS wields. Thus, the direction of the agency can change. This has occurred as the global tensions between the Eastern Europe and the West have declined, and as terrorists operations have escalated. CSIS is now concerned primarily with preserving the national security from disruption from within the country than from beyond Canada's borders. Operationally, the solicitor general, a member of the governing party who is the overseer of CSIS, provides government direction.

Intelligence information is gathered from a wide variety of sources, both public and privileged. Public sources include newspapers, trade journals, periodicals, academic journals, radio and television broadcasts in Canada and abroad, and via official government documents. Privileged sources include the interception of telecommunications.

The information that is collected is analyzed by the field staff who collect it and by personnel at CSIS headquarters. The information can be combined with other information to provide a national picture of the significance of the suspected security threat. The final step is the release of the analysis to the concerned government departments.

One of the main analysis reports is known as a threat assessment. Different departments use the threat assessment to determine responses. For example, the RCMP can use a threat assessment to gauge the degree of security provided to a visiting dignitaries and to prominent Canadians traveling abroad. As another example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade will use a threat assessment report to provide the proper security to Canadian business and governmental missions in foreign countries. Transport Canada also uses the assessment to issue warnings to the general public about travel.

As of late 2003, the primary role of CSIS is the safety of Canadians from security threats. This includes terrorist activity. As such, much of the information that CSIS collects on terrorist activities is shared with security and enforcement agencies in other countries including the United States.



Cleroux, Richard. Official Secrets: The Story behind the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1990.

Hewitt, Steven. Spying 101: The RCMP's Secret Activities at Canadian Universities. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Starnes, John. Closely Guarded: A Life in Canadian Security and Intelligence. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.


Farson, S.A. "Is Canadian Intelligence Being Re-Invented?" Canadian Foreign Policy no. 6 (1999): 49–83.


Canadian Security Intelligence Service. "A Historical Perspective on CSIS." Government of Canada. November 01, 2001. < > (06 December 2002).

Library of Parliament. "The Canadian Security Intelligence Service." Parliamentary Research Branch. January 24, 2000. < > (06 December 2002).

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