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2015 Is Canada’s Year of the Spy

Job shakeups show that Stephen Harper is looking to focus on security and intelligence in the new year.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA

Julian Fantino. Photo via Flickr user Michael Swan

The Prime Minister rung in the new year by appointing Canada's ex-spy chief Richard Fadden as his critically powerful national security advisor, while moving Julian Fantino, a grizzled ex-cop, to oversee military intelligence.

With new powers to collect Canadians' data, new legislation that allows our spooks to operate abroad, and a raft of new government agents on the security and intelligence file—it's a clear signal that 2015 will be Canada's year of the spy.


On Monday, Stephen Harper announced that embattled Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, lambasted for entirely screwing up his job, was moving back to his old gig, the associate minister for National Defence. While it was characterized as a demotion, his new job might prove to be significantly more important.

Then, on Tuesday, a press release from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) announced that the Prime Minister had a new National Security Advisor—ex-CSIS boss Richard Fadden.

Normally, staffing changes like that wouldn't be terribly exciting.

But the job that Fantino is returning to isn't the same as the one he left. When he last held the post, his role was mostly to oversee and communicate on military procurement. Now, that job has moved to another office.

The PMO release says that Fantino "will support the Minister of National Defence in the areas of arctic sovereignty, information technology security and foreign intelligence, thus continuing the Government's efforts to defend our values and interests at home and around the world."

While current Defence Minister Rob Nicholson is considered pretty capable on the traditional aspects of the file, he has never fared particularly well when talking publicly about the intelligence side of Canada's military. Even though Nicholson is still the main minister in charge, Fantino may take on some of that workload.

The government has just recently updated the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to allow them to conduct international spying operations. Those changes will certainly expand the powers of the Communication Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), which is run by the Department of National Defence, and conducts NSA-style bulk data collection—a file Fantino will likely become intimately familiar with.


Fadden, meanwhile, was the former head of CSIS. He was shuffled off to oversee the Department of National Defence, perhaps because of the controversy he generated by insinuating that foreign governments were employing spies to conduct political and industrial espionage in Canada.

Not long after, when Tory MP Bob Dechert was allegedly roped into a honeypot scheme by a Chinese state journalist, Fadden's claims took on some weight. Meanwhile, CSIS has warned Chinese hackers were targeting the Canadian government.

Fadden, also, showed effective foresight in a 2010 CBC interview, when he warned Canada's main threats came from cyber warfare and homegrown radicalization.

Also being shuffled is David McGovern, who had been running an overhaul of Canada's border plan, with a focus on improving security at Canada's airports and border crossings. He's now deputy national security advisor, under Fadden.

Fadden's gig falls within the Privy Council Office (PCO)—basically the bureaucracy nerve centre for the government working directly under the Prime Minister coordinating activities from various departments.

PMO spokesperson Jason MacDonald gave VICE a glowing review of Fadden, saying in an email that "he is an experienced, senior public servant with a deep background in a range of departments — like defence, like CSIS, among others — that will be invaluable for someone taking on this role which, as you point out, is an important one."


Fadden's predecessor in the job was Stephen Rigby, who was widely regarded as one of the most important, and most secretive, members of the Harper Government.

For some part of his tenure, Rigby was providing daily security briefings to the Prime Minister, which is no small feat for a boss not known for being people-friendly. Rigby boasted an eight-person staff—easily the biggest in the PCO—who focused on human smuggling, border security, defence, foreign affairs, and, of course, security and intelligence.

Rigby was also known as being about as secretive as the spy shop he worked alongside. Few senior Conservative staffers, even those who deal with security, knew much about Rigby. One of his only public appearances was when he took to a Parliamentary committee to deny that CSEC was secretly grabbing Canadians' data through wifi hotspots at domestic airports.

Meanwhile, Fantino—the ex-top cop for Toronto who was plagued with controversies like pushing the huge security apparatus around the Ontario G8/G20 summit—looks like he's going to be overseeing after CSEC's new powers and dealing with the constant threat of hostile hackers.

The shakeups makes it pretty clear, especially in light of the two terror attacks from October, Harper is seriously beefing up Canada's security and intelligence regime.

"I have been saying that our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention, and arrest," Harper told the House of Commons after the two attacks. "They need to be much strengthened. I assure members that work, which is already under way, will be expedited."

Ottawa was already planning new intelligence legislation before those attacks—the bill that turned CSIS into a foreign spy operation was already written when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau opened fire in Parliament—but more security legislation is expected when Parliament resumes at the end of January.

With that in mind, it's worth noting that Canada's security oversight regime has been pretty static for the past two decades, with the CSIS oversight body (the Security Intelligence Review Committee) and the CSEC Commissioner both complaining the inherent secrecy and obfuscation defining the two spy bodies is making it hard for them to actually play the role of watchdog.

While both Conservatives and opposition politicians have called for more oversight, the government has, thus far, refused.

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