Economy-security link critical

On the same day that the federal government appointed Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue to head a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian affairs, an influential business lobby coincidentally issued a call for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to have a more preemptive role in protecting the economy.

“Canadian companies are in the crosshairs of state-sponsored actors,” the Business Council of Canada (BCC) points out in a 19-page report September 7. The overall solution, it says, is a national security strategy which “establishes economic security as a central pillar.”

The BCC prepared its report after consulting not only corporate leaders but also former government officials and security experts about the importance of a “mutually reinforcing link” between economic and security interests. The business leaders said they fear Canada is increasingly seen as an unreliable ally and the BCC says a commitment to spending 2% of gross domestic product on defence would go a “long way” to restoring confidence.

“Many of Canada’s closest allies […] and have developed integrated approaches to economic and national security that seek to enhance their prosperity, safety, and sovereignty in a period of heightened geopolitical risk,” the BCC says. “Canada has not.”

It faults successive governments overlooking, taking for granted or simply ignoring the importance of such a link. “In an era of renewed geopolitical rivalry, where countries’ ability to foster economic growth is the foundation upon which military, economic, and cultural power now rests,” that neglect had left Canada vulnerable.

“Our decades-long neglect of economic security issues has made us vulnerable. To use the Canadian Security Intelligence Services’ own words, Canada has become an “attractive and permissive target” and failure to address the challenge will have long-term consequences,” the BCC warns.

“Strategic threat actors have shown both a capacity and willingness to steal, sabotage, and disrupt their way up the economic ladder to strengthen their geopolitical might and to unilaterally reshape the existing international order into something more favourable to themselves.”

The report’s many citations include a speech in May 2021 by Shelly Bruce, then chief of the Communications Security Establishment, at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario. “Cyber systems, digital systems, they do not exist in a vacuum,” she said. “They exist in relation to people with real-world implications for their privacy, their prosperity, their well-being.”

But a vacuum has developed nonetheless and the resulting increase in foreign threats are documented in the report. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are particular concerns.

The BCC says the legacy of benign or even deliberate government neglect is an environment with “the potential to wreak large-scale havoc on Canadians’ daily lives” through mass layoffs caused by intellectual property theft, cyberattacks on infrastructure, and “weaponized” supply chains which drive up consumer costs.

There are three core recommendations in the report, one of which is to amend the 1985 Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act so that CSIS would have more power to “identify, analyze and disrupt threats to Canada's economic security”, a policy shift that would enable to “proactively share timely and actionable threat intelligence.

It also urges the government to incent “high-risk, high-reward research in disruptive and emerging fields” and to expand and reinvigorate international security partnerships.

The former lacks detail but on the latter, the BCC warns that Canada risks being perceived as a “weak link” if it doesn’t move in lockstep with its allies. “Canada’s new geopolitical reality means that economic security – repeatedly taken for granted, overlooked, or simply ignored – is now central to the preservation of our national security. Therein lies the challenge for the country.”

(Formerly the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the BCC was founded in 1976 by noted Ottawa lawyer, businessman and historian Thomas D’Aquino, who had a long-standing relationship with the defence and security communities which is outlined in his memoir, Private Power, Public Purpose, published earlier this year by Penguin.)