Canadian national security forces urged to mend race relations ‘marred by suspicion’

By on 07/06/2022 | Updated on 07/06/2022
Photo by s.yume via Flickr

Canada’s security and intelligence agencies must develop more transparent relationships with ‘racialised’ groups to counter growing mistrust, a report by Canada’s National Security Transparency Advisory Group (NS-TAG) has said.

The report claims that various institutions’ approaches to engaging vulnerable racial groups had created relations “marred by suspicion, and by errors of judgement”, and were often seen as discriminatory, a proxy for surveillance tactics, or as a tick-box exercise. The agencies referred to throughout include the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The report’s recommendations for mending the rift converged on a need for more open and inclusive engagement with vulnerable groups, as well as for the members of such groups to have access to effective means of complaint where needed.

“Engagement with racialised communities needs to involve a two-way conversation,” the report said.

“Too often engagement involves… government officials offloading a prepared message and failing to listen to the concerns of stakeholders. Constructive engagement should instead be based on dialogue; government officials should be attuned to the questions and concerns of stakeholders, listen to them, and be prepared and willing to respond.”

Read more: Canada’s public safety agencies told to stamp out institutional racism and discrimination

One example given in the report of a practice that has tended to alienate certain communities is the routine street checks carried out by RCMP. It said the practice “privileges information gathering through a practice that alienates racialised communities [and] presents a significant challenge to establishing meaningful trust”.

Another problematic practice outlined in the report was that of CSIS officers, who the report said had to been known to discourage the people they dealt with from obtaining legal counsel. David Vigneault, director of CSIS, told the report’s authors that such practices were strictly against CSIS policy, and that there were “additional safeguards” in place to deal with them.

“Regrettably… these perceptions remain common,” the report stated.

NS-TAG’s report comes after Marco Mendicino, Canada’s public safety minister, set four federal government agencies mandates to quash institutional racism, misogyny and unconscious bias. These agencies included all three of those cited in the report.

AI not OK

One factor that had contributed to the breakdown in relations between agencies and racialised groups was the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to gather and process data holdings. The report said systemic biases in the algorithmic methodologies applied risked “perverse impacts” on vulnerable individuals and groups.

“These biases reflect not only specific flaws in AI programmes and organisations using them, but also underlying societal cleavages and inequalities which are then reinforced and potentially deepened,” it said.

NS-TAG recommended that national security agencies submit details of their AI activities “as well as their efforts to mitigate unintended consequences and systemic biases within such systems”. It also urged them to establish an external body to give independent advice on algorithmic systems.

An open wound

Key among the report’s overall recommendations was that agencies avoid reaching out to communities “only in times of crisis” and to instead remain proactive about engagement.

It also said attempts to improve engagement needed to target communities at grass roots level, not just at the leadership level. It added that community members themselves deserved better communication from agencies about how engagement informs their decisions. Finally, it said improving engagement would mean agencies having to make a firmer distinction between activities that establish dialogue and those that simply seek to gather intelligence.

The Canadian government has acknowledged that systemic racism is a problem across the country, and has started work on urgent reforms to combat the problem.

This autumn, a C$2.5bn (US$1.97bn) class-action lawsuit will be brought before a judge for the first time in response to allegations that black employees across Canada’s public services have been subjected to institutional racism for more than 50 years.

The class action, which grew from 12 claimants at the start of 2021, claims measures put in place to remedy systemic discrimination have only worsened the problem, suppressing black Canadians to the lowest ranks within institutions.

Since 2019, NS-TAG has operated as an independent body made up of 10 members from the legal, civil society and national security professions. Its job is to advise Canada’s deputy minister of public safety, as well as its national security and intelligence community, about ways to improve transparency in Canada’s national security policies.

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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