Racial bias and profiling in security intelligence: what we’re learning from the Rouleau Commission

For decades, Muslim and Sikh communities in Canada were considered the primary threats to national security. They were consistently identified as such in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) annual reports.

Not only is this a flagrant example of racial and religious profiling, but it is doubly problematic since it humiliates members of these communities and misleads Canadians with biased assessments of security threats.

Who is considered a threat?

Terms like ‘Shia Islam’, ‘Sunni Islam’ and ‘Sikh (Khalistani)’ extremism, were commonly, if not frequently, used in the elaboration of these reports until 2018. The 2011 report employs the words of Vic Toews, the then-Public Safety Minister who summarized the situation as: “violence driven by Sunni Islamist extremism is the leading threat to Canada’s national security.”

These type of references remained present in national security reporting until 2018 when Ralph Goodale, the then-Minister of Public Safety, declared: “Words matter. We must never equate any one community or entire religions with extremism.”

While Muslim and Sikh communities were unjustly targeted over the years, the increasing number of violent white supremacy-motivated attacks, and neo-Nazis, incel (short for involuntary celibate) and other anti-government groups, were rarely mentioned or described as posing real threats to our national security.

The Toronto van attack inspired by incel ideology killed 11 people and injured 15 others; the Islamophobic attack at the Quebec City mosque killed six men and injured 19 others; the London, Ontario van attack killed four Canadian-Pakistani Muslim family members.

These are clear and tragic outcomes of ideologies that flourished when left undisturbed while the full scrutiny of the security apparatus was directed at so-called Sunni, Shia or Sikh terrorism.

Before going any further, I want to be clear. I am not trying to argue that dangers posed by some individuals associated with the aforementioned religious denominations should be taken less seriously than other groups or individuals with violent ideologies. My point is to emphasize the reckless attempts by some intelligence agencies in shaping the narrative of who Canadians should fear, while their neglect gave other violent groups an implicit ‘carte blanche’ to operate.

Coded language persists

In a 2019 move to distance itself from its past, CSIS introduced new terminology. The word ‘terrorism’ which was mainly understood by the agency, and even the media, as violence committed by Muslims, was changed to ‘violent extremism.’ The Service came up with three separate categories: religiously-motivated violent extremism, politically-motivated violent extremism and ideologically-motivated violent extremism. Even though I personally find this terminology a better description of the threats we are facing, it still carries some heavy and obvious racial and religious connotations.

What is the line between religious, political and ideological threats?

Many times, we can see how one easily slips into another or how one feeds into another. Take the example of white supremacy, considered by CSIS as politically motivated violent extremism. It isn’t a secret that this ideology has been historically associated with some extremist Christian groups where some white Christians are considered morally superior to Black, Indigenous, Jewish, and Muslim people. So why is it considered politically motivated violent extremism rather than religiously or ideologically motivated?

The same blurry line applies to religiously motivated violent extremism. If CSIS is targeting individuals belonging to Al-Qaeda or Daesh, as they claim, they must know that for these groups, religion, as counterintuitive it may appear for some, isn’t the sole motivation for violence. It is rather an ideological or political interpretation of religious texts that is their lethal engine.

Osama Bin Laden, the former leader of al-Qaeda in his speech following 9/11, explicitly linked his ‘fight’ to the occupation of Palestine and the illegal and violent presence of American forces in the Middle East. Whether he was being transparent about his motives or not, it is clear that the delineation of what is religious and what is political can be very misleading. So why do we stick the ‘religious’ motive on Muslim groups and categorize other acts of violence differently?

Clear instances of bias revealed in the Rouleau commission hearings

A prime example of this coded terminology at play in reports about the three-week long week occupation of Ottawa earlier this year.

The Public Order Emergency Commission investigating the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to end the protests, headed by Judge Paul Rouleau, began a few weeks ago. Newly-public information reveals and confirms that police services and intelligence agencies are very biased when it comes to detecting national security threats from groups that are not Muslim or Sikh. Indeed, for years, they have been allocating human and financial resources to target Muslims and as a result they left other threats, coming from white supremacist violent groups in Canada and the United States, unperturbed. Worse, they assessed them with leniency, if not sympathy.

In a video played at the Rouleau Commission, a pastor delivers a fiery sermon to a crowd in a saloon in Coutts, Alberta. He tells them they should be willing to die for their cause, understood here as the vaccine mandate set by the federal government. Wouldn’t that qualify as violent religious extremism? Why didn’t we see any red flags raised or repercussions for this incitement of violence? Why wasn’t this included as an example of religiously-motivated violence extremism?

Moreover, even when the risk is flagged by some intelligence agents, there is no action taken. Steve Bell, the top-ranking police officer who replaced the embattled Ottawa Police chief during the convoy, was not able to explain, during his testimony at the Rouleau Commission, how his office failed to foresee the risk that was already flagged by some intelligence reports.

I dare to assume here that because the protesters were white and seemed ‘harmless,’ the Ottawa Police Service assumed they would mostly obey the law and leave after the first weekend.

Ottawa convoy assumed to be harmless, at first

Giving protesters the benefit of the doubt should be the norm. However, insisting on giving the occupiers the benefit of the doubt, even when the intelligence reports are indicating otherwise, is hugely troubling.

What is even more concerning is that the chief of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) testified at the inquiry that he saw no ‘credible’ information of a national security threat or extremist violence during the convoy.

The same investigation revealed that the RCMP top chief and her OPP counterpart were exchanging texts on how to “calm unnamed cabinet ministers about the situation unfolding in Ottawa.” Would they have the same discussions if the protesters were Muslims, or Sikh, or land defenders from Indigenous communities? I highly doubt it.

The commission heard that a police officer, from the Ottawa Police Service prepared a security intelligence report relying mainly on an editorial by Rex Murphy, a columnist at the National Post. The report reads: “at the time of writing, there is no critical intelligence to suggest any sort of violent actions or concerns for violence.” Though it notes that due to the “vast number of vehicles” involved, protesters “will be able to stop and effectively shut down movement if they desire.”

The attempts to downplay the convoy and its impacts on the city and its residents are very clear. No inflammatory words like ‘terrorism’ were used not even the softer language of ‘ideologically motivated violence extremism.’ Just the neutral and objective word ‘protestors.’

The reports concludes as follow: “no adverse intelligence or any information concerning a specific threat towards this event has been determined at this time.” It is only until after the hearing at the Rouleau Commission that we learned that the officer, who wrote the report, is under review.

Law enforcement officers entangled with convoy

But worst of all, during the Rouleau Commission, we learned that a former member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s security team (and RCMP officer) may have leaked the Prime Minister’s schedule to the convoy organizers. That officer resigned because of the vaccine mandate but his name hasn’t been made public. We don’t even know if he is being investigated. We don’t even know his religion, nor his ideology nor his political view.

He wasn’t the only police officer implicated in leaks. Keith Wilson, the counsel for some convoy organizers, admitted that the convoy regularly received leaks from sympathetic police officers about the operational plans.

These examples clearly show that our intelligence agencies should come clean about their biases and their negligence in determining the real threats to national security. Amplifying some threats when they are coming from Muslims, and downplaying others or keep qualifying them as ideologically motivated without a full analysis is not fair.

Our social cohesion and democratic principles deserve better.

This article was initially published at rabble.ca

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