OTTAWA—Top federal public safety and national security officials tried to allay public fears they might not properly screen 25,000 Syrian refugees expected by year’s end, and downplayed any threat to Canada in the wake of the Paris attacks.
At a news conference flanked by his senior advisers, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Wednesday the government will not change the timeline for meeting its campaign promise of fast-tracking refugees, nor is it cutting or reducing any of the necessary checks to meet that timeline.
The Liberal plan, yet to be outlined by the immigration minister, will use “layers” of security checks on new arrivals to verify documents and identity, including checks of domestic and international databases, “biometrics” verifications such as fingerprints, and personal interviews by officials “to make sure at the end of the day we achieve the humanitarian objective and do so in a way that respects the security and health imperatives that Canadians expect,” said Goodale.
Michel Coulombe, head of CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was an “integral part” of developing the screening procedures. “I want Canadians to know that as director of CSIS I am confident the measures in place are robust and again I have full confidence in terms of being appropriate.”
Yet Coulombe and RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson acknowledged the Paris attacks revealed a potentially more deadly enemy in ISIS “if it can be confirmed” that the co-ordinated explosions were organized centrally in Raqqa, Syria, and exported to Europe. Coulombe said it doesn’t change the “operational posture” of CSIS, which he said operates under a “worst-case scenario all the time.”
“Our operational posture has always been — what if ISIL has that intent and capacity?” he said, so “it would be a confirmation but it wouldn’t be a surprise for us.”
Paulson dismissed as “speculative” reports that a Canadian voice is on an audio recording that claimed ISIS responsibility for the co-ordinated assaults last Friday, but admitted it was “concerning” and the force is trying to confirm if it’s true.
Paulson and Coulombe also acknowledged the possibility that Canadians who have gone abroad to fight or work for terrorist organizations could slip back into Canada undetected by using false documents.
“As in all things in life, a 100 per cent guarantee — that doesn’t exist,” said Coulombe.
Paulson added that’s why the RCMP continues to look for “evidence” of the reported deaths of Canadians fighting abroad.
But Goodale and his officials insisted “there is no rationale” — no new information either in terms of any Canadian link to the Paris attackers, or in relation to any activity by those under watch by security agencies here — that warrants any change to the threat level in Canada. It has been at “medium” nationwide since the October 2014 attacks that killed two Canadian soldiers. Those attacks — in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and in Ottawa — were carried out by “ISIL-inspired” lone-wolf individuals.
The RCMP and CSIS refused to update numbers made public last year under the Conservative government of 145 Canadians who went abroad to fight or work for terrorist organizations or about 80 who had returned by last October, except to say those numbers are “outdated.”
Paulson said RCMP-led integrated national security teams have doubled efforts over the past several days to assess if there’s been any change in activity by those they watch that could suggest a heightened risk, but there was not. However there was an increase of reported suspicions to the RCMP’s national security hotline, something he said always happens after a terror incident.
Goodale declined to say exactly who will be a priority for acceptance under the government’s refugee intake program, except to say it targets “vulnerable” people, many of whom have been the queue in UN refugee camps for years, and security checks are already well advanced.
He underscored the Liberal government intends to bolster the “review and oversight” of national security by a new parliamentary committee, saying the purpose is “number one, to make sure nothing’s been overlooked in terms of what our security agencies ought to do, and number two, to make sure the rights and freedoms of Canadians are properly respected.”
Goodale urged Canadians to be alert, and to reject and condemn acts of “perverted vigilante retribution, the hateful abusive intolerance that has marred several Canadian communities over the past few days.”
Paulson dismissed the arrest Monday of a Toronto man, Yasin Ali, 56, at Centre Block who was found with a knife, saying it was not an act of terrorism or an act that was politically motivated. Paulson said he did not get far before he was identified by parliamentary protective services due to “odd” and “suspicious” behaviour, and suggested the individual was known to police because he had a history of odd behaviour.
“The best information I have right now it is just sort of mental health, bad judgment, crazy behaviour issue.”