Extremists saw 2021 federal election as an 'opportunity' to plan violence: CSIS

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau criticized the latest group of protesters shouting expletives and other slogans as he attended a party event in Sudbury, Ont., saying they were endangering others by not getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and called on Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole to condemn them. Protesters against various issues, including vaccines and masks, have shown up at several Liberal events and even prompted the cancellation of a rally this past Friday.

Extremist actors viewed the 2021 federal election as an “opportunity” to plan “acts of violence,” Canada’s domestic intelligence service said Friday.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service revealed that it briefed government agencies on threats to the federal election, including “ideologically” motivated “actors who viewed the election as an opportunity to discourage Canadians from democratic participation or to plan acts of violence.”

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CSIS, which is responsible for tracking national security threats within Canada, also reported the agency has noticed a significant uptick in threats against politicians and public servants since 2020.

“Ideological” motivated violent extremism is the agency’s catch-all term for a range of grevience-fuelled extremism — but includes far-right, anti-authority and anti-government, and racist groups motivated to violence.

“There have been seven attacks and three disrupted plots in the Canadian (ideologically-motivated extremism) space since 2014. These attacks have killed 26 people and wounded 40 others on Canadian soil — more than any other form of violent extremism,” the agency’s 2021 annual report, released Friday, read.

“A range of grievances motivates … actors’ willingness to incite, enable, and/or mobilize to violence. Not all of these instances meet a national security threshold, but CSIS has observed a marked increase in violent threats to elected officials and government representatives during the past two years.”

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The 2021 federal election saw a level of protest following the campaigns – particularly Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s tour – without precedent in recent elections.

Trudeau was met by jeering crowds at stops across the country, particularly at stops in suburban Ontario. While much attention was paid to an incident where a protester threw gravel at Trudeau, he also had to cancel a planned rally in Bolton, Ont., due to concerns for the crowd’s safety.

After cancelling the event, Trudeau said he’d never seen the same “intensity of anger” displayed along the campaign trail.

The Toronto Star reported that threats against Trudeau and his cabinet increased between 2020 and 2021, when the country was locked down by the first waves of the global pandemic. In July 2020, former Canadian Armed Forces reservist Cory Hurren rammed his truck through gates near Trudeau’s official residence, and was arrested with multiple firearms and a note threatening Trudeau.

Hurren is currently serving a six-year prison term on multiple weapon charges.

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But the anger in some pockets of Canadian society extends beyond visceral feelings towards Trudeau Liberals. MPs from multiple parties have detailed hostile interactions and threatening behaviour while performing their public duties.

Calgary Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner has publicly detailed allegations of harassment, threats and “violent language” directed particularly toward women on the campaign trail.

“I have also received a death threat from someone who called my office in escalating states of verbal abuse over the course of days,” Rempel Garner said in a 2021 statement.

“This meant I can’t advertise the location of my campaign office. I can’t attend public events where my attendance has been advertised. I’ve had to enhance security measures. I’m on edge and feel fear when I’m getting in and out of my car, and out in public in general.”

Provincial politicians, including Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce, who served as Ontario’s education minister, have also had protest groups appearing on their doorsteps over COVID-19 public health restrictions. That behaviour extends to officials like Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang. Two protesters – including far-right figure Jeremy McKenzie – were arrested outside Strang’s home in March 2022.

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The convoy protests – which included the participation and encouragement from Canada’s far-right fringe and anti-government activists – has prompted reflection within Canadian intelligence and law enforcement circles on how to investigate increasingly obvious civil unrest.

CSIS, for example, is prohibited from keeping tabs on lawful protests. But the point when a protest turns into an occupation – or a valid national security concern, as the Ontario Provincial Police assessed Ottawa’s convoy protest to be on Feb. 7 – is not always immediately obvious.

What is clear, from CSIS’s perspective, is that since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the threat has been “fueled by an increase in extreme anti-authority and anti-government rhetoric often rooted in the weaponization of conspiracy theories.”

The agency’s 2021 report goes on to say that Canadian “influencers and proselytizers” have emerged within the movement, who “promote misinformation and action, including violence.”

Global News reported in March that CSIS now spends as much time and resources tracking “ideological” domestic extremism as it does religiously-motivated terrorism – a significant shift in the agency’s priorities over the last six years.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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