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Testing limits: navigating the complex web of national security, research and diversity

Canada is balancing security imperatives and the need for diversity in academic research. How do we maintain our global commitments while protecting our national interests?


The challenges facing Canada’s research security sector have been garnering widespread media attention since the beginning of the year. Only weeks before the federal government recently unveiled its Policy on Sensitive Technology Research and Affiliations of Concern (STRAC), a Federal Court judge, citing national security concerns, upheld a 2022 decision of an immigration officer who had refused to grant a study permit to Yuekang Li, a Chinese PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo. The Chief Justice dismissed Mr. Li’s appeal, citing in his judgment that “hostile state actors increasingly make use of non-traditional methods to obtain sensitive information in Canada or abroad.”

It’s a case strikingly similar to the decision denying Iranian student Reza Jahantigh a permit to study at Montreal’s École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS). Mr. Jahantigh, whose research is related to blockchain technology, completed the first semesters of the ÉTS program online from Iran in 2020. In December 2022, after waiting more than three years on his study permit application, Mr. Jahantigh asked the Federal Court to intervene and order the Immigration Department to make a decision. In September 2023, a Canadian immigration officer in Ankara, Turkey issued a letter stating that the department had reasonable grounds to believe that the student represented a potential danger to national security, and may therefore be inadmissible to Canada.

When asked about ÉTS’ reaction to this situation, Jean-Alexandre D’Etcheverry, Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations, responded that the federal government had made the decision for reasons of national security and ÉTS would abide by the judgment. “I think it’s important to emphasize that while we respect academic freedom,” he says, “it can also restrict our ability to collaborate with certain states and institutions in sensitive areas of research.”

Threats not easy to define

Ferry de Kerckhove, a former diplomat and a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, offers a nuanced perspective on the complex relationship between security and research. He says we can’t lose sight of the need to define clear boundaries in terms of how we cooperate. There’s an important distinction to be made between academic collaborations, which despite political differences are often positive and constructive, and the additional restrictions of state alliances. “We are rightly concerned when it comes to things such as matters of security,” he says. “But we also need to understand that we live in an incredibly interconnected world, and academics often work closely together. Our collaborations may be small potatoes in the government’s eye, but to academia, they’re vitally important.”

Mr. de Kerckhove previously served as High Commissioner of Canada to Pakistan, Ambassador to Indonesia and Ambassador to Egypt. For him, there’s no doubt the Canadian government should partner with academic institutions to define a strategy that would streamline the admissions process without compromising national security. Still, he concedes that “it can be exceedingly difficult to conduct the necessary checks with countries such as China and Iran. I’ve lived in Iran, and I know the country well. But tell me, how do you go about conducting even the most basic security investigation in a country with which you have no formal diplomatic relations?”

Instead of designating this or that individual persona non grata, Mr. de Kerckhove believes it would be more advantageous for Canada to decide up front which sectors—especially the technological sciences and other fields that might end up cooperating with the Department of National Defence—can or cannot accept international students. “It’s perfectly within the government’s rights to tell universities and researchers that a sector is off limits, end of story.”

Chad Gaffield, CEO of the U15-Group of Canadian Research Universities, worries the government’s new policy may undermine Canada’s international reputation for diversity and inclusion. “A diverse student population is one of Canada’s priorities and is seen as an asset in research,” he says. “It is crucial to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, feel welcome and are appreciated as a valuable resource for the country. Protecting this diversity is a vital step in promoting a secure and open research environment and ensuring our university programs remain viable.”

Dr. Gaffield says the possibility of Canada falling behind in international research is a legitimate concern. Traditionally, Canada has played a key role on the global stage, building strong partnerships around the world. He says safeguarding Canada’s national security is compatible with actively participating in international research, and Canada must continue to play a part. Canada’s existing partnerships have positioned the country to successfully meet those challenges and remain actively engaged in international research.

Mr. de Kerckhove underscores those transnational academic collaborations, although sometimes politically complex, have significantly contributed to research and scientific progress. He acknowledges the need for a clearer definition of restrictions but warns that placing too much emphasis on security might end up jeopardizing critical collaborations. “Plainly, military cooperation with China, much less with Iran, is out of the question,” he says. “But as far as intelligence is concerned, those are matters of national interest. We don’t always share that information with each other, let alone even south of the border. Unfortunately, in tightening our definition of threats, we’re closing ourselves off from countless opportunities, particularly in medicine and other fields pertaining to quality of life, where we could literally make a difference on a global scale.” And he makes no bones about his opinion on the policy. “I think we’re blowing things out of all proportion.”

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