The Public Order Emergency Commission investigated the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act in response to blockades by the so-called Freedom Convoy in Ottawa, Windsor and western Canada in February 2022.
Justice Paul Rouleau will soon release a report on the inquiry’s findings. He will no doubt focus on whether the blockades were sufficiently serious to justify emergency measures.
However, any discussions of national security demand consideration of a much broader set of questions. What is national security? Whose national security matters? What counts as a national security threat? And should national security policing powers be expanded?
These questions need to be considered in all conversations on national security policy alternatives. Yet, such sustained conversations have yet to happen.
What is national security?
In September 2022, we organized a conference in Windsor, Ont., that was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Entitled “Critical Reflections on Security, 9/11 and the Canadian Settler Colony,” the conference brought together scholars, lawyers, community activists and students.
Participants reminded us of a fundamental tenet of critical security studies: defining security is not objective. State security officials testifying before the Emergencies Act inquiry themselves acknowledged that definitions and understandings of security can vary.
Canada has a long history of invoking national security or public order to disenfranchise Indigenous peoples, take their lands and subject them to surveillance and criminalization.
Canada’s history also illustrates that “outsiders” are often viewed as threats. Those who aren’t white, settler, able-bodied, heterosexual and male risk being regarded as outsiders.
Throughout Canadian history, racialized ideas of nation and belonging have framed key components of Canadian identity. They’ve also tainted national security practices. We have not escaped this reality in the 21st century.
Whose national security?
Racist assumptions that Arabs and Muslims are violent, untrustworthy and barbaric have played a major role in post-9/11 security policing.
Such stereotypes have had wide-ranging consequences for racialized people. They also reinforce pre-existing social stigmas.
Our conference heard that Somali Muslims are subjected to both anti-Black racism and Islamophobia. Muslim women wearing the hijab, in particular, have become highly visible targets.
The social stigmas, in turn, contribute to tolerance for abuses in the name of national security.
The government of Canada’s actions have contributed to the dehumanization of Muslim life. Canadian officials were complicit in the abuse of hundreds of Muslim men detained without charge in Guantanamo Bay.
More recently, Canadian citizens — mostly women and children — accused of having links to ISIS were abandoned under deplorable conditions in Syria before finally being considered for repatriation. They were not even thought worthy to stand trial in Canada.
This list of examples highlight how national security labels applied to Muslims corrode rights and dignity, subjecting them to feelings of not belonging anywhere.
A surge in white supremacist violence has also sparked attacks on Muslim, trans, Black, Indigenous, Asian and other vulnerable groups.
What’s a threat?
The call to curb right-wing violence is urgent and compelling. But how should we approach it?
The possibility of further expanding national security measures was raised in testimony to the Emergencies Act commission. The commission has provided a new platform for these calls, according to what security officials see as emerging threats. Among these threats is right-wing extremism.
This partial shift of resources towards policing the far right has helped security agencies quell criticism about their own Islamophobia and racism. But can we trust police to truly address right-wing violence and white supremacy? Our answer to this question is unambiguous: No, we cannot.
Resisting security expansion
The discussions at the “Critical Reflections on Security” conference suggest that a national security policing approach has harmed racialized and minority groups, and it would be short-sighted to ignore this in any security expansion.
Maintaining order as the baseline response to violent right-wing groups does not help us meet the challenges presented by them.
Simply put, maintaining order does not address the authoritarian and racially charged sentiments that drive right-wing movements. Social and community-oriented approaches are required to address systemic racism and transform deep-seated settler colonial institutions and values.
It’s also unrealistic to expect security agencies to transform so quickly. Their roots have been firmly grounded in Indigenous disenfranchisement and other forms of racism. Security agencies will not be redirected easily simply due to new mandates.
It’s also worth recalling that racialized and Indigenous peoples have rarely benefited from calls for greater public order or safety. At best, public safety and security have been selectively made available to these communities.
The conference provided a record of Canadian history.
It also encouraged a much-needed public conversation about Canadian settler colonialism and racism as we continue to grapple with vexing questions about public order and security.
One thing is clear. Approaches to contemporary security issues need to be informed by the dire histories of what happens under the banner of national security.