Why Canadian intelligence agencies never saw the freedom convoy coming

CSIS briefing notes show the agency believed a threat would come from “an extremist lone actor” against a high-profile target. Instead, we have a blockade of the capital by a group of angry truckers

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Intelligence agencies constantly look for threats to Canada’s security, but newly released documents show they never imagined a swarming takeover of central Ottawa.  


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B riefing notes and Power Point slides from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) identify enemies such as ISIS and a l-Qa ida, and the neo-Nazi Atom waffen Brigade, Blood & Honour and the Base.   There is a continued threat of a violent attack in Canada with little or no warning,” they say.  

But these analyses never mention the chance that a crowd of angry truckers and groups from the far right will join together one week and occupy the capital, rather than trying to kill people.  

The CSIS documents, released through an access to information request, also identify high-profile targets of possible violence: a professional football game, Barack Obama’s 2019 visit to Ottawa, the RCMP Sunset Ceremony, the Army Run, and even the opening of the LRT back in 2019.  


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But again, nobody at CSIS was asking: What if a group ignores the high-profile targets and instead blockade s city streets, blasting disruptive noise all day, and refusing to leave?  

The documents say security threats would likely be from “an extremist lone actor” or small group , with no warning. The past 10 days have turned that upside-down.  

Analysts describe the usual weapons, such as firearms and bombs. But not air horns, fireworks, diesel engines, trucks blockading the streets, verbal harassment, which are technically not weapons and have baffled the police. They also don’t address the problem of re-supply lines that bring in crucial fuel , and the infrastructure: a camp kitchen, tents, fire pits and saunas.   


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And no one foresaw that millions of dollars would come in a couple of weeks from GoFundMe, and later GiveSendGo.  

The documents are all from 2019. But a former national security analyst who now teaches at Carleton University says Canada was still not ready for the truckers this winter.  

The truckers’ protest “is a weird event, and this may be why it wasn’t predicted,” said Stephanie Carvin, who teaches political science. I don’t know that they were prepared for a sustained event like this.”  

She says the CSIS worldview changed suddenly with the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 of last year. But she said “radical change” is hard to implement within an institution.  

One problem, Carvin says, is “hindsight bias” — the belief that future events will be similar to what we have already seen. Terror attacks in Canada have usually been by one person.  


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And there’s a gap in what CSIS does.  

Since 1986, CSIS has stopped doing “counter-subversion,” or work to prevent the overthrow of the government. During the Cold War there were hundreds of thousands of people on government lists as possible threats, “many of whom had done nothing other than join a Finnish knitting club kind of thing. This was discovered and it was seen as extremely anti-democratic,” Carvin said.  

So CSIS dropped all that.  

“The issue is, do we now have a viable counter-subversion movement in Canada?” she asked.  

While political protests is legal, “we’re talking here about a bunch of people who came to Ottawa with the explicit purpose of overthrowing the government. They told us this.”   

After Donald Trump was elected president and there were far-right terror incidents such as the mass shootings in a Quebec mosque five years ago, “CSIS realizes it has to start looking into this. Threats aren’t just from Muslims. They’re from all kinds of groups.”  


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But the lead investigating agency on far-right issues in Ontario is the Ontario Provincial Police. It’s working quietly and CSIS can’t just “go bursting in” because these investigations are delicate.  

She feels Ottawa’s occupation is less organized than the Washington riot. “I think it is something that has organically grown.”   

Truckers have tried to organize convoys before, but found better support this time from people exhausted by all the lockdowns. “It caught fire.”  

Protesters are using nearby RCGT Park as a staging area as others continue to blockade streets in downtown Ottawa.
Protesters are using nearby RCGT Park as a staging area as others continue to blockade streets in downtown Ottawa. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

Meanwhile it’s city police who have to deal with the reality.   “I’m not sure they recognized this as an extremist-led event. And as a result they treated an extremist-led event as a normal political protest and were thoroughly unprepared,” Carvin said.  


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It’s possible that government agencies knew who they were dealing with, “but the required response was just too hard to organize in a period of time.  

“For the (Ottawa) police, I strongly believe they just did not know who they were dealing wth.”  

“Often after an attack there are hindsight judgments as to why they (officials) didn’t see that coming,” said Steve Hewitt, a former Ottawa resident who teaches North American studies at the University of Birmingham in England.  

“I agree that part of their job is to anticipate. But one of the ways they anticipate is by looking at the past. And at the moment the trend is clearly to lone-actor terrorists, people acting on their own.”  

He suggested that blocking off streets before the convoy arrived might have worked, as the city does on Remembrance Day and Canada Day.  

The documents “raise an important question about how do we assess (threats)?” said Marcel Martel of York University, who studies the history of surveillance by the RCMP and CSIS. “If we did not see it coming, how come? And if we did, how come nothing stopped it?”  



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