Renewing Canada’s CBRN Strategy

Strategy missing from CBRN Strategy

9 June 2019

A Preventative Approach?
The national security landscape in Canada today has become increasingly complex. From terrorism and organized crime to foreign interference and espionage, the security challenges facing Canada are significant. Terrorist attacks are increasingly focused on western interests and, since terrorist organizations have specifically identified Canada as a target in the past, we must consider that future attacks on Canadian soil could include the risk of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear (CBRN) terrorism.

Aimed at enhancing a sustainable resilience to CBRN events, a National CBRN Strategy was developed – through a collaborative, whole-of-government effort – to address the threat of CBRN attacks or accidents. Drafted and published by Public Safety Canada in 2005, then updated in 2011, the Strategy defines the four fundamental components of CBRN resilience as: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

In domestic matters involving CBRN threats or accidents, Public Safety Canada facilitates and coordinates the efforts of other government departments, such as National Defence (DND), which operate in supporting roles. Thus, being familiar with the Strategy is beneficial for those military sections tasked with providing support to Public Safety in such events. As a military officer, this was my intention for seeking out the Strategy and related documents.

Toronto Police and Hazmat team respond to an event. (Photo: Larry Thorne)

This article examines how CBRN resilience, as outlined in the current version of the Strategy, is achieved across the agencies, through both domestic and international efforts. It should be noted that Canada’s international efforts typically prioritize the prevention/mitigation pillar of resilience, while domestic concerns often emphasize response and recovery pillars.

As Public Safety Canada is primarily concerned for the safety of the Canadian public, the Strategy appears more as a domestic emergency plan than a comprehensive strategy, with the pillar of response emphasized over prevention.

Based on interviews conducted with members of contributing departments, it becomes evident that, despite Public Safety Canada’s (and therefore the Strategy’s) emphasis on domestic response, the preventative efforts abroad, led by Global Affairs Canada (GAC), appear to be achieving a much greater impact and contributing the most to Canada’s CBRN resilience. This is appropriate as, the more Canada invests in Non-Proliferation (N-P) and Counter-Proliferation (C-P) abroad, the less of a domestic threat CBRN events will be.

Furthermore, as CBRN threats and countermeasures are constantly evolving, the Strategy itself suggests that it be updated every five years. Since the current version was last updated in 2011, it is due for renewal. Specifically, redrafting a strategy that aligns with the Government of Canada’s priorities, resources, and emphasizes prevention over response.

Strategic Action Modified
Originally drafted in 2005, the purpose of the National CBRN Strategy was to provide a policy framework to guide the creation of sustainable capabilities and common standards in CBRN policies, programs, equipment and training across the different contributing departments. It designated the four pillars of CBRN resilience as its strategic objectives and delegated actions to each of the governmental departments involved – giving the guidance on what their main strategic efforts should be in tackling CBRN threats for the following five years.

It further outlined the need for a CBRN Working Group and Committee of Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management (SOREM) to be established from Federal, Provincial, and Territorial personnel.

Under the auspices of Public Safety Canada, the SOREM functions as the main coordinating body linking federal and provincial-territorial governments as they develop and carry out programs and initiatives to support the Strategy. This group is also responsible for updating the Strategy, however, the SOREM does not meet on a regular basis. Considering that the Strategy has not been updated since 2011 – a renewal is long overdue.

Between the original (2005) and current (2011) versions, a few notable changes were made. The four original objectives were: Prevention, Preparation, Response, and Recovery. In the 2011 version, these remained as fundamentals in CBRN resilience and critical components of an emergency plan, but were no longer formally designated strategic objectives.

The revised strategic objectives were now: Leadership, Risk Management, Capability-based Planning, Effective and Interoperable Workforce, and Information and Knowledge Management, which focus more on the “how” than on the goals.

The 2011 iteration also removed the listed responsibilities by department – opting instead for a broadly described Action Plan. Implementation of this new Plan, while touching these new objectives, does not clearly specify responsibilities to departments other than Public Safety, nor does it offer any metrics to measure progress in their respective preparatory efforts.

This is concerning, particularly given that the National CBRN Strategy, with its comprehensive aim, requires action from several departments. While Public Safety Canada does not have the authority to mandate another department to action, the plan could suggest which departments would accept certain responsibilities.

These changes in objectives, along with the removal of specific responsibilities, effectively marginalized the original objective of prevention and shifted the focus to emergency response and readiness.

Despite containing a few comments on the importance of prevention, the current version of the Strategy offers very little in the way of guidance for prevention beyond our domestic borders.

Counter-Proliferation Framework Falling Short
In 2018, Public Safety Canada published a document related to the National CBRN Strategy but focusing more on C-P. This document, called “Strengthening Canada’s Counter-Proliferation Framework”, outlines Canada’s current efforts to prevent CBRN threats from occurring within our country. Given C-P’s relevance in bolstering CBRN resilience, it is surprising that the document makes no reference to the Strategy.

The C-P document outlines how Counter-Proliferation has become a subject of concern for both civilians and government officials as Canadian businesses and research institutions are recognized as leaders in many high-tech sectors, from nuclear energy to biotechnology and electronics, which makes Canada a potential target for would-be terrorists or criminals.

It further mentions the roles and responsibilities of several federal departments and how such a multi-departmental framework must be flexible and adaptable to address contemporary challenges, to close gaps, to establish governance structures, and to coordinate activities among those working within them. While these points are important, there is no reference tying any of them to the Strategy’s objectives such as, for instance, building an ‘effective and interoperable workforce’.

On a positive note, this C-P document does speak to the requirements of both an international and domestic component to ensure potential CBRN threats are prevented/mitigated as much as possible. It speaks to Canada’s involvement in several international initiatives and mandates to build global resilience to prevent CBRN proliferation that could threaten our safety and security. This includes Canada’s ongoing efforts to support the Proliferation Security Initiative; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and INTERPOL.

Canada also supports the full implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540, which calls for states to collectively build the capacity of at-risk countries that may require technical, legal, or operational assistance in carrying out C-P activities, specifically against non-state actors.

The document also speaks to Canada’s multi-faceted C-P regime against domestic threats involving various programs and controls, such as the Controlled Goods Program, Human Pathogens and Toxins Act Licensing Program, and export and border controls. All of the efforts and initiatives that Canada is currently involved in, could easily be tied into the current Strategy’s objectives of interoperability, leadership, and capability-based planning, but this C-P document makes no such connection or reference. Nor does it speak to gaps or overlaps between the two documents.

Threat Prevention
Related to CBRN resilience, the WMD Threat Reduction Program (WTRP), as described in the Evergreen Brief (2018) administered by GAC, focuses on CBRN threat prevention and reduction abroad.

By supporting partner countries, international organizations, NGOs and other government departments, the program aims to prevent, detect and respond to a range of threats posed by WMDs by securing and destroying dangerous CBRN materials; protecting and enhancing vulnerable physical infrastructure; strengthening global networks and supporting international initiatives. By participating in these international efforts, Canada can learn the lessons from a greater community of practice and these can and should then be integrated into our own domestic planning and training.

Notable examples of the fulfillment of Canadian commitments can be found in the Nuclear Security Summit process (2012, 2016), the Global Health Security Agenda, and the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.

The Global Partnership was originally established in 2002 as a $20B international initiative to prevent terrorists and “states of proliferation concern” from acquiring WMDs. Since then, Canada’s WTRP has supported it with $1.3B in projects (approximately $73.4 million per year). Canada assumed the Chair of the Global Partnership Working Group in 2018, hosting two meetings during that year.

Key priorities of the WTRP are: nuclear/radiological security; biological security; chemical weapon reduction and security; and UNSCR 1540 implementation. The nuclear and radiological security program has had some notable payoffs through the WTRP. For instance, strengthening the capabilities to prevent illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radiological materials in Jordan, increased capabilities to detect and interdict illicit cargo of radiological materials in Latin America and the Caribbean, and assistance in the creation of radiological disposal systems in Ghana, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Similarly, through its biological security programming, Canada has lent its support to the biosecurity response of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, enhanced biosecurity capacities in Jordan, and continues to financially support international collaborations such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization’s own Biological Threat Reduction Program.

As part of its chemical threat and security programming, Canada has supported the OPCW-UN Joint Investigation Mechanism to attribute responsibility for Chemical Weapons attacks in Syria, and support to the investigation, monitoring, and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.

And through its UNSCR 1540 Imple­mentation programming, Canada has supported United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Container Control Program in SE Asia to enhance detection and interdiction capacities at ports to prevent illicit trafficking of CBRN material and weapons. Additionally, Canada’s National CBRN Response Team has been delivering CBRN training to first responders in Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Jordan, and Malaysia.

With its multiple lines of programming, the WTRP has produced several measurable effects in reducing CBRN-related threats worldwide, which undoubtedly serves Canada in mitigating if not preventing the likelihood of responding to a CBRN threat domestically.

Recommendations for Renewing the Strategy
Comparing these documents in how they promote CBRN resilience both domestically and abroad, it becomes clear that the current National CBRN Strategy has reduced the emphasis on strategic “resiliency through prevention” in favour of greater emphasis on interoperability and effective planning of domestic responses across the federal and provincial levels of government. Although the C-P framework also maintains that emphasis on domestic activities over international activities, it does refer to building CBRN resilience through mitigation and prevention.

At the other end of the spectrum, the WTRP, as a program administered through GAC, focuses solely on building CBRN resilience through prevention abroad.

The current Action Plan and Strategy function as a broad set of guidelines to encourage preparation and an interoperable response to a domestic CBRN event. As the Strategy is well overdue for renewal, it would be prudent to consider the following assessment.

Clearly outlining responsibilities in the prevention, response, or recovery from a CBRN event within or outside of Canada – as the 2005 version set out – would allow each department to measure its own effectiveness. In doing so, it will avoid the gaps that currently exist.

A greater emphasis should be placed on preventative C-P efforts, both domestically and abroad. For this, staff within Public Safety Canada must communicate with each other more effectively to make sure all the necessary points are covered in one comprehensive document. Perhaps another annex could be incorporated, with a secondary Action Plan pertaining directly to preventative efforts. Incorporating this would give the revised Strategy a more balanced structure between the needs for both prevention and response in sustaining resilience. Furthermore, the SOREM would have to ensure that the revised Strategy is resourced and implemented accordingly, which is a current point of concern.

During interviews with members from several of the contributing departments, differing interpretations of the Strategy, its Action Plan, and the SOREM began to emerge. For instance, while corresponding with a military officer embedded in the Governmental Operations Centre (administered by Public Safety), he noted that the Strategy does not contain a standardized federal business plan for CBRN training across the country – such training is left to the individual departments. Each region/province has mandates to deal with CBRN incidents, but this amounts to ensuring the respective companies of interest (i.e. chemical and nuclear plants) have standing contracts in place with civilian companies specialized in containing and/or responding to facilities disasters (and not necessarily to include humanitarian aid response). Interoperability exercises are often orchestrated through the initiative of particular departments rather than by Public Safety Canada. The reality on the ground does not suggest a particularly strong commitment to the interoperability outlined in the Strategy. In short, should a CBRN event occur domestically, Public Safety Canada will activate its agencies and notify the provinces, as will the other governmental departments to address the crisis. That seems to be the full extent of national preparation.

The truth is, despite the pointed language of the Strategy and the addition of the Action Plan Annex, very little of what’s written therein seems to be currently being enacted. This raises questions about the role of the SOREM.

Should Public Safety Canada decide to make good on its claim that the Strategy is to be updated in the near future, it could implement the changes suggested above. To do so, it is incumbent upon its leaders – through the aid and direction of the SOREM – to plan for, allot resources to, and inform OGDs of the Strategic objectives it intends to actualize. Or it could take a much more honest approach to what it realistically expects to achieve, and forego any attempt to include details or actions it is not capable of implementing or measuring.

Summary and Conclusion
Reviewing and comparing the National CBRN Strategy with other related documents reveals conflicting points of alignment that have emerged within Canada’s general approach to CBRN resilience. These friction points can provide Public Safety with material and recommendations for revisions as the time for the Strategy’s renewal is due.

Key points to promote in this upcoming Strategic revision are to: (a) return to the format of the original CBRN Strategy, at least ‘suggesting’ responsibilities for each of the contributing departments and agencies; and (b) place a greater emphasis on prevention, even to the point of annexing a secondary Action Plan to focus on measures pertaining to Counter-Proliferation.

For the Strategy to have any pertinence as a comprehensive document, the revised version must be more balanced in its structure between the needs for prevention and response in sustaining CBRN resilience. It must also be resourced and communicated to the OGDs accordingly.

It is important to consider that while CBRN attacks are potentially devastating, they are also a low-probability risk within Canada (partly due to preventative efforts, domestically and abroad). This, along with the government’s finite resources, may be the reason that implementing the current Strategy and Action Plan has not been tenable. If resources are sufficiently scarce to forego business planning for preparing for such events as outlined in the Strategy (i.e. interoperability training events between departments), that perhaps is informative in its own right. It is upon the government to manage this risk, but this too should be captured in the National CBRN Strategy’s next edition.  

– Zac Myers is an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. The opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the author alone and not those of any organization.