Complying with “Counter-Terrorism”: State Securitization of Canadian Academia (part 1)

Insidious Security

Recently I was contacted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), to serve as a peer reviewer for research grant proposals submitted under the new “Connection Program”. Having publicly criticized the structure and uneven geographical and institutional distribution of SSHRC funding in the past (see [1], [2], [3], [4]), plus limits on collaboration (also see here), in addition to the broader political economy of university research funding, and even in 2009 the already sharp rise of federal political intervention in SSHRC‘s funding under the ultra right-wing regime of Stephen Harper, I was pleased at first to see what appeared to be a lot of creative innovation on SSHRC’s part.

These earlier reports and essays had a great deal to do with the interests of the “Zero Anthropology Project,” and its critique of the conditions that make anthropology, and social science in general, possible as institutionalized and professionalized structures in the West. In addition, research funding itself has become a target in the ongoing Quebec student revolution and social strike about which I will doubtlessly have much more to say in the coming weeks and months, working in the centre of its prime battle zone: the university.

At first I was pleased by what I read about SSHRC’s Connection Program: here, finally, was recognition of the value of online networking, distribution of research, co-creation, engaging new audiences, and communication with a broader public, as well as collaboration well beyond the narrow confines of academia. It seemed like something written by me, for me. However, every element, left either undefined, or loosely defined, seemed double-edged as I read more closely:

  • “enhance intellectual, cultural, social and economic influence, benefit, and impact” of research–but how do you determine influence, benefit and impact, and beneficial to whom, according to whom, and what does SSHRC mean by these terms?

  • that various “groups” should “ideally, have the knowledge they need, when they need it, in useful forms”–in useful forms, that is the other side of “open access” that its proponents (made dizzy by their own hype perhaps), rarely pause to consider, and that is about making our “knowledge” (they really mean data) more easily read by machines and transferable to databases that are closed to the public, such as military and intelligence electronic “libraries” (we have had this debate before here and here) and that are manipulated for ends beyond whatever we may have intended

  • “formal partnerships,” which can involve the private sector

There seems to be an unspoken “concern” here that, left on its own and to its own devices, scholarly research might not be “influential” or “beneficial” (to what? for whom?) and the only way to ensure that it can be is to harness it to something greater than itself.

None of these observations on their own invalidated the program in my eyes, insofar as they tended to resemble the kinds of priorities being pushed by the executives who “administer” my own university (when not busy awarding each other gifts of brand new Lexus cars: [1], [2]). Nor were the “priority areas” of great concern, and in fact I avidly support some of them, such as Aboriginal Research, and environmental issues. But the best way to insert oneself and one’s agenda is to do so insidiously, to come in toward the end, and advertise yourself as “just another” possibility. Thus SSHRC adds “Related Initiatives”. Related to what? Related to the priority areas? Just…“related”.

And there, at the bottom of “Related Initiatives” is where we find this, almost at the end of the whole document:

“As part of the Kanishka Project, Public Safety Canada is investing up to $3.7 million to support, in full or in part, with SSHRC, research and related activities addressing issues related to terrorism and counter-terrorism.”

So here is Canada’s own little Minerva Research Initiative, an import, an imitation that was just waiting to happen. Here it was now, a “Canadian” program aimed at countering “terrorism” and “radicalization”–and once again, we already debated this issue here with reference to the U.S. and the UK. The total funding level is not much, but it is a start–a very recent start that snuck up on us without any of the advance public discussion and debate that Minerva had in the U.S.–and in a context of generalized budget cuts. One has to also wonder why the statement quoted above could not specify “related activities”–it would be just as easy to write “research, publication, and networking,” without the suspicious and questionable lack of clarity–this is, after all, a document soliciting academic applications that is supposed to inform such applications.

SSHRC, Kanishka and the Questions They Ask

SSHRC, in a separate document, related how on June 23, 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a new $10 million project (of which $3.7 million would be disbursed under the auspices of SSHRC, much like the Pentagon’s collaboration with the U.S. National Science Foundation), to cover five years, and whose aims were research on “pressing questions for Canada” related to “terrorism” and “counter-terrorism”.

Pressing questions? For Canada? Why, exactly how many Canadians have died in a “terrorist” attack on Canadian soil in, say, the last 20 years? Exactly zero. That is clearly a pressing problem then, and one deserving of millions and millions of dollars to “research”. Now, how many Canadians died in their bathtubs? The Canadian Red Cross actually researches this, and the number is significantly higher than zero. Is there a national emergency, or any memorials, surrounding Canadian bathtub deaths? Even in the U.S., in this so-called “post 9/11 world,” we find similar statistics of bathtub deaths versus death by “terrorism” (see [1], [2], [3], [4]–and on this site, [5]). Indeed, the fact that the Prime Minister had to reach as far back as 1985, to a bombing of an Air India flight (Canadians were not the target), is telling enough. “Kanishka”, as I recently learned, was the name of the airplane.

The key thing about Canadian terrorism research then is that one has to think “proactively”–you see, because “terrorism” could happen, and it could happen to you, so you have to begin to train yourself mentally and realign with that yet unrealized opportunity. After all, “past performance does not guarantee future results”. So you need to teach yourself how to fear the future, and start now by looking for conspiracies at home–don’t worry, you’ll be aided in this process of resocialization by the mainstream media, by the Office of the Prime Minister, and now by SSHRC too. Ultimately then, you need to begin fearing future terrorism–you have to terrorize yourself into the belief that it could happen–and you should prepare for that: start by turning scholarship into policemanship.

Terrorism? Rather than inviting academics to do what they are supposed to be doing, which is to think critically about dominant assumptions, formulaic “truths,” and question state-sponsored fear mongering about less-then-relevant threats at a time of global economic and social crisis, what academics are instead encouraged to do is just get on board. They are not even being asked to research terrorism as such, because that would have to include the state’s own terrorism. Canada just finished dropping over 600 bombs on Libya–a country that never attacked Canada. Imagine if Libya had detonated just one single bomb in any Canadian city, and even if it did not kill anyone would the government not be denouncing the act as terrorism? Exactly. And unless you are willing to admit to being guided by a racist theory that our aggression is never terrorism, and theirs always is, you will follow the logic here. The Kanishka Project makes it very clear: terrorism is what others do, not us, and it is these others that academics are being funded to investigate. Domestic counterinsurgency and surveillance are never off the agenda in these cases–as we will see, even “anti-capitalists” in Canada become a target group for the state’s “counter-terrorism” policy.

Wait, counter-terrorism? It is only counter when you are not the one to have initiated terror. Otherwise, it’s called blowback, or self-defense, or retaliation. Another country that never attacked Canada is one we have helped to occupy for over a decade: Afghanistan. If, with Canadian withdrawal plans underway, and having failed to convince enough Afghans to submit to our way of thinking about what their future and their culture ought to be, the government is predicting possible retaliation, then it should own up to it. Politicians in successive Canadian governments should do the responsible and accountable thing: admit to Canadians that they have exposed this country to retaliation from Afghans, a risk that was not inevitable, from a war that most Canadians consistently opposed. Kanishka was announced as Canadian troops were allegedly being pulled back from an active combat role in Afghanistan, and moved into training.

Like Minerva in the U.S., Kanishka is about learning to think like the state and working for the state. In opposition to the independent intellectual contribution that academics ought to be making, the national security state seeks to harness their energies, to appropriate the legitimacy of the academic imprimatur, and to reorient funding priorities. The “ideal” outcome is a fully pacified academia, where the university is merely an arm of the state, and “relevance” is always defined as relevant to governance, which is itself reshaped to be relevant to safeguarding corporate interests.

Some of the Preliminary Questions We Need to Ask

Democracy. The autonomous university. How is it that in a country that proudly promotes itself as a “democracy,” there is no public discussion, let alone debate, and not even advance notice about using the public’s money to fund research into a problem that has not even affected Canadians? Even more striking: as academics we have been led to believe, and many of us still believe it, that we work in collegial settings, with ample peer review, questioning, and institutional autonomy. Where was the discussion with Canadian academics about the Kanishka Project? The only “choice” in the matter that I was given, as a privilege, was to either serve as a peer reviewer for grants that could have been part of Kanishka, or to not do so. I declined, and I elaborated on my reasons why to the SSHRC staff member who contacted me. The response from her asked if I wanted to never again be contacted by SSHRC again.

Unconstitutional Intervention. As some Canadians will recall, there is no Federal portfolio for education. So what is the Federal Government doing in appropriating, controlling, and then deciding on how to channel research funding? Why do the provinces allow this system to continue? Why don’t more academics question this?

The priorities of academics. Why is there an obvious fear about letting academics decide on their own research priorities? Are we to always be treated like rabbits–“Here is where you can get research money, so you should quickly hop over here to get it”? I have already worked in a university (Cape Breton University, to be specific), where the RCMP approached the university to get us to do research in the community on the use of illegal narcotics–an absolutely blunt and direct invitation to turn ourselves into policemen and policewomen. If the Canadian military could set up recruitment tents right on the campus, and hand out pamphlets to the students, then of course the RCMP must have felt it had the right to recruit their professors. The national security state is always and everywhere a totalitarian state: this ought to be Lesson #1.

What you will not find in Canada is any funded research that is part of a program of Anti-Imperialist Studies. In this great democracy, and with all these autonomous universities that promote diversity in research and learning, that wish to speak to the full breadth and depth of Canadian public interests, you will not find one single “Canada Research Chair in Studies of Imperialism,” and Peace Research à la Johan Galtung–if it exists anywhere in Canada–is more than doubled, tripled, and then quadrupled by various “strategic studies” institutes in universities, some with involvement in glaringly unethical projects like the AGS Bowman Expedition in Mexico.

More on Kanishka in Part 2.


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Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)

SSHRC: Connection Program

SSHRC: Kanishka Project

Zero Anthropology Project (New Website since 2011)

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