Expert Symposium on Addressing Unconscious Bias, Diversity and Inclusion in National Security
Summary of Panels


Public Safety Canada hosted its first annual Expert Symposium on Addressing Unconscious Bias, Diversity and Inclusion in National Security in Ottawa on March 4, 2020. The symposium sought to expand on work currently being done by the Government of Canada to use gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) in the national security sphere to improve understanding of threats and our readiness to address them.  The symposium comprised two keynote speakers and the four main discussions featured panelists from diverse backgrounds and sectors and centered around the themes of:

The event fostered fruitful conversations among the more than 120 participants, while laying a foundation for Public Safety’s leadership and continued discussions between government and partners in this important and emerging area which has impacts for both national security and public safety operations and policy-making. The panel discussions were animated and dynamic, and there were many questions from participants and opportunities for dialogue with the presenters. Public Safety committed to maintaining a network of experts to further this discussion, and to look into future opportunities to continue these exchanges.

Key Takeaways

Full Report

Morning Keynote Address

Dominic Rochon, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister of the National and Cyber Security Branch at Public Safety Canada, opened the symposium with an overview of the government of Canada’s commitment to move towards a bias-sensitive lens in the area of national security – that so doing is, quite simply, good policy. He spoke about the necessity for the national security community to identify and address biases and apply meaningful GBA+ analysis to their daily work, to keep Canadians safe and enhance trust with Canadians.

Public Safety’s Panels

 Academics, civil society advocates, and government leaders from Canada, including one guest from the organization Moonshot CVE in the United Kingdom and a representative from the New Zealand High Commission, came together on thematic panels to discuss issues ranging from the role of oversight bodies to inclusion and diversity in national security.

Panel 1: Women and Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism

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Five panelists discuss Women in Terrorism and Counterterrorism in front of a large conference room filled with people.

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Panelist Laura Huey stands at the podium in front of the crowd while four fellow panelists listen during the Women in Terrorism and Counterterrorism panel discussion.


Moderator: Rachel Schmidt, Carleton University

Highlights of the panel:

Speakers on this panel highlighted that women in terrorism is not a new phenomenon, but consistently reoccurs in various iterations. Women play numerous integral roles in terrorist activity. To understand terrorism, it is crucial to recognize the importance of women’s roles and resist the bias that women are not involved, or that their involvement is limited to minor roles. Presenters acknowledged that media reporting influences how communities and governments perceive these women and the implications of their involvement.

Speakers on this panel emphasized the bias that primarily white women are doing research in this field; in addition, research on women in terrorism is rarely cited in the “mainstream” literature on terrorism. Academia is not diverse and struggles to engage and recruit diverse individuals, which amplifies the lack of research diversity in thought, methodologies, and understanding.  In addition, while programs have seen an increase in the use of intersectionality, unconscious bias continues to have impacts and hinder results. Intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, provides a framework for understanding how various identity factors (e.g. race, class, gender, religion etc.) combine to create discrimination and disadvantage.  Since unique, individualized barriers are in place, “one size fits all” approaches are ineffective. The delivery of programs has revealed that a change in family structure (e.g., new partner, loss of a partner, birth of a child) is an important identity factor for both men and women seldom considered in programs working to counter radicalization to violence. There are also challenges and biases related to referral and data collection (e.g., referrals about women are often taken less seriously by law enforcement), which limit our understanding of the issue.

The panelists encouraged everyone to push past their assumptions by addressing two key false assumptions regarding terrorism. First, that gender does not have an impact on terrorism. As both men and women express various forms of gender identities, terrorist organizations have successfully exploited sexuality and gender norms, including expectations of masculinity and femininity, to find weaknesses. The second assumption is the longstanding trope that men are perpetrators and women are victims. This assumption was disputed during the panel, revealing that women are often active members of terrorist organizations, with some working on the frontlines and outside of stereotypical roles. Gender norms such as the centrality of women as mothers and men as protectors also have key roles in terrorist recruitment. As such, gender is central, not peripheral, to understanding terrorism, and it is important to emphasize the importance of using gender-informed approaches and ensuring that women’s voices are heard in meaningful ways that do not threaten their security or livelihood.

Panel 2: Unpacking the “Plus” in National Security

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Panelist Anver Emon stands at the podium in front of the crowd during the Unpacking the “Plus” in National Security panel discussion.

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Panelist Navaid Aziz stands at the podium in front of the crowd during the Unpacking the “Plus” in National Security.


Moderator: Kimberley Unterganschnigg, Women and Gender Equality Canada

Highlights of the panel:

Panelists agreed that society is currently experiencing a gender revolution, where individuals are identifying beyond the male/female dyad. The intimate link between intersectionality and power was drawn out and how individual’s lived experiences are informed by this dynamic relationship between identity and power. This is an understanding of the regulation of not only sex and gender but also other identity factors; therefore, intersectionality is not just about who you are but how you fit into society based on normative values.

Panelists questioned whether GBA+ is actually intersectional or if the “+” is additive and not truly intersectional. For example, the process of analyzing gender and each “+” separately encourages coding based on local demographics. Thus, in Canada, “gender” is often incorrectly interpreted to mean issues relating to white women. While the intent of GBA+ as an analytical tool is to be intersectional, the implementation of the tool suffers from systemic bias and widespread misunderstanding. This can have a significant impact on policy, when the latter fails to consider and address the cumulative negative impact on communities. For example, communities largely represented in terrorist listings and hot spots are thus disproportionately impacted in the identification of foreign terrorist fighters.

Panelists then drew attention to the importance of language, which can be empowering and disempowering. Awareness around which voices are empowered (i.e., who gets to speak but also who is listened to when they speak) informs which qualifications are empowered (e.g., is there a pattern of characteristics that are continually respected over others?). The role that religion plays in our lives can vary but religion must be respected because it is such an important factor in the lives of various communities. Creating a safe space for individuals to practice their religion free from judgement and that allows for religious identify without stigmatization is an essential part of contributing to an effective framework for countering radicalization to violence (CRV).

Finally, panelists discussed that much of the theory around GBA+ has not been translated into practice. In order to bridge this gap, they promote the idea of co-creation of CRV solutions to allow intersectionality to seep into programming organically and to create a response that works with people. It is important to note that, “nobody is not complex!” and CRV programming must be adaptive and keep the “end user” in mind.

Panel 3: Emerging Technologies and their use in National Security

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Panelist Christine Beauchamp stands at the podium in front of the crowd during the Emerging Technologies and their use in National Security panel discussion.

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Five panelists discuss Emerging Technologies and their use in National Security in front of a large conference room filled with people.


Moderator: Erin Hetherington, Public Safety Canada

Highlights of the panel:

A common theme throughout this panel was the dual nature of technology. While the technological revolution has brought unprecedented possibilities for society, it also has brought unintended impacts. The government’s national security efforts are no exception. The panel began by discussing how the evolution of technology over the last decade has had gendered impacts on national security operations in Canada. Jobs that require the use and understanding of technology are disproportionately male, and as a result, intelligence analyses are becoming more gendered and—intentionally or not—more biased. While encouraging young girls and women to enter STEM fields is important, this is a long-term goal. In the interim, the panelists emphasized the importance of training existing employees to understand and analyze technology in order to add richness to the analysis.

Panelists shared their skepticisms about the ability of law enforcement agencies to bring technology into existing systems, arguing that technology can make decision-making processes too opaque. They stressed that the government needs to be thoughtful about how technology is adapted into the institution’s decision-making process, as it is difficult to root out biases once they have been embedded into the system. The government has to decide institutionally how much it values citizen rights over security considerations, and how to create that balance. Many of the systems in place in national security are based on decisions that have already been made and, more often than not, these discussions occur after the technology is acquired. If there is bias in the data, then the decisions made by AI will also be biased. 

Panelists then raised the point that the complexity of algorithms are a significant part of machine-learning systems. Complexity is what helps the machines to be cognitive and identify ever-evolving risks and threats. However, as an algorithm becomes more sophisticated, it becomes more vulnerable to bias and discrimination. This bias could be and is being leveraged by extreme groups to recruit susceptible individuals to their cause. Violent extremist groups are quickly learning and adapting to machine learning technology, and those countering violence must do likewise.

Finally, the panel turned to a discussion on “incels”, or involuntary celibates—an online subculture of men who identify as being unable to find romantic or sexual relationships, and who often advocate violence against women. The panelists described the various communities of incels, including the nuanced ways that various myths and stereotypes influence the way incels are understood. Gender norms and racialized stereotypes deeply influence how incels see themselves, how men see masculinity and sex, and the way people understand the incel community. Intersectional considerations also matter here: while the incel community is predominantly made up of white, heterosexual men, there are sub-groups of incels that do not match this demographic.  Although these communities thrive in on-line platforms, technology is not necessarily a solution to this problem. Analysts need to understand what the community is about and help individuals disengage from these communities.

Panel 4: Profiling, Surveillance, Intelligence and Unconscious Bias

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Panelist Nadia Hasan stands at the podium in front of the crowd while three fellow panelists listen during the Profiling, Surveillance, Intelligence and Unconscious Bias panel discussion.

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Panelist Shaheen Azmi stands at the podium in front of the crowd while three fellow panelists listen during the Profiling, Surveillance, Intelligence and Unconscious Bias panel discussion.


Moderator: Sarah Jamal, Privy Council Office

Highlights of the panel:

Speakers in this panel highlighted that all information is inherently biased. Since biases stem from multiple sources, a multitude of solutions is required. Although bias is not always bad, many biases have unintended and damaging consequences, including creating harm, forming distrust, and increasing radicalization and crime. By ensuring that diverse perspectives are included, better solutions to address bias will be developed.

Panelists also discussed challenges and opportunities for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Over its 35-year history, CSIS has demonstrated a desire to ensure the equal representation of men and women within the service. However, CSIS struggles with internal and external biases. Externally, CSIS must contend with how they are viewed by the public. Internally, CSIS continues to struggle with ensuring that all voices are heard and respected. Panelists also discussed how the culture within CSIS is already changing.  From many of the panelists’ perspectives, while CSIS has become more accepting of GBA+, the organization needs to better implement these strategies into operational practices and also needs to talk publicly about its mistakes, especially in regard to vulnerable and racialized communities that feel targeted by intelligence agencies and police.

Panelists indicated that the objective should not be to become bias-free, and in fact, there are dangers in claiming to be bias-free. Instead, the objective should be to confront and address biases, and to welcome diverse biases into the room. Biases are not always bad, but many different biases across Canada have led to racism and Islamophobia. The dangers of biases in the public service are evident in recent news articles and court cases that revealed problematic workplaces at CSIS and Transport Canada, among others. The Public Safety 2018 Report that negatively referred to religious groups was also mentioned, with discussion on how subsequent conversations and the corresponding revisions reflected the appetite for change. The panelists encouraged the government to systematically address bias to encourage change and to address the broken relationships with specific communities that impede trust and limit the ability of some individuals to participate.  To conclude, the panelists suggested two recommendations for improvement. First, a rigorous review of national security policies, programs and operations by a third party. Second, the development of whistleblower legislation for CSIS, to ensure employees are able to call out problematic internal management structures.

Panelists then explored how biases lead to discrimination and illegal actions. A firm commitment to address conscious, unconscious, and systemic bias is required. The unconscious biases that are held by individuals can permeate policies and procedures and standard operations, creating discriminatory norms and practices in institutions. Panelists also flagged conscious and systemic biases as issues that need to be addressed. Ultimately, the panel discussed how language and terminology used to discuss extremist violence and the connotations and emotional reactivity around the word “terrorism” can negatively affect discourse and discussion. Addressing systemic bias due to the normalization of the lack of diversity in services is crucially important, as is the need to have frank and open conversations on bias and privilege.

Afternoon Keynote Address

Ghayda Hassan, of the Canadian Practitioners Network for the Prevention of Radicalization in Montreal, delivered the afternoon keynote to discuss recommendations and tools on how to decrease bias. She suggested various concrete steps that could be taken to decrease bias and increase cultural competency.  She emphasized the need for divergence of thought – not just diversity in general – as not all people with the same background think the same way. She asked participants to be more aware of the risks of singular decision-making and the importance for decision makers to create a safe and inclusive environment to encourage diverse and divergent voices to participate in that decision-making.

Conclusion and Next Steps

The event generated a great deal of discussion and interest among all participants – both panelists and participants expressed that these conversations were both necessary and overdue. Public Safety committed to maintaining a network of experts to further this discussion, and to look into future opportunities to continue these exchanges. These opportunities could include future annual or biannual symposiums on bias, cultural competency, GBA+ or other fields related to national security. Events could also include webinars or virtual meetings of the network to go more in depth, to hear from more divergent and diverse voices, and to continue to foster relationships and dialogue among civil society, academics, government, and international partners.

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