An All-Hazards Approach to Public Safety

11/07/2007 |

Canadian security expert Margaret Purdy describes how building owners can play a significant role in security and emergency preparedness. Purdy compares threat perceptions in Canada and the United States, and suggests that government agencies and industry leaders establish robust, two-way sharing of information on threats, vulnerabilities, incidents, and counter-measures.

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

Measuring more than 5,500 miles, the border between Canada and the United States is the longest between any two countries in the world. These two neighbors share much more than geography and a robust trading relationship; they also share a vulnerability to security threats of all kinds. This was illustrated most clearly on 9/11, when at least 25 Canadians died in the terrorist attacks in the United States and Canada accepted 234 aircraft and more than 30,000 passengers after U.S. authorities closed U.S. airspace to incoming international flights.

Margaret Purdy has had a front-row seat as security perceptions, policies, and capabilities have evolved over the past 30 years in Canada. She has occupied senior positions in almost every major component of Canada's federal security establishment and has provided advice to successive Canadian governments not only on counter terrorism, but also on emergency management, critical infrastructure protection, transportation security, and cyber security. 

In this exclusive interview with, she revealed the threats that keep her awake at night and shared her advice on how building owners can take a responsible and systematic approach to security and emergency preparedness.

About Margaret Purdy
Margaret Purdy is one of Canada's most knowledgeable and experienced national security experts. During a career that spanned almost 30 years, Purdy worked in a wide range of policy, operational, and senior management assignments in Canada's security and intelligence community. Most of her work had a counter-terrorism focus, but she also provided advice to successive Canadian governments on protective policing, VIP and major events security, cyber security, critical infrastructure protection, emergency management, and transportation security.

With academic credentials in journalism, education, and national security, Purdy started her working life as a newspaper reporter. A job as a writer/editor with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) launched her public service career. She spent a dozen years with the RCMP, initially as a protective policing specialist and later as a criminal intelligence analyst on major international investigations. In the mid 1990s, she managed the counter-terrorism program at Canada's domestic security intelligence agency. Purdy then spent 6 years in Canada's Privy Council Office, providing security and intelligence advice and support to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In 2001, the Prime Minister appointed Purdy to the second-ranking civilian position in Canada's defense department, with a mandate to "stand up" a new entity to manage the federal government's role in critical infrastructure protection, cyber security, and emergency preparedness. 

Purdy retired from government service in 2006 and moved into academia as a Resident Scholar in the Centre of Intl. Relations at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. At the same time, as the principal of Margaret Purdy Consulting, Purdy provides government and private-sector clients in Canada and abroad with security advice and services. Purdy returned to Ottawa briefly in 2007, responding to a request from the Minister of Transport to serve as interim Chair of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Air Transport Authority, the Crown Corporation responsible for security screening at Canadian airports.

Purdy has published on topics such as the root causes of terrorism, security of trade and transportation gateways, and the evolution of Canada's counter-terrorism policy. She has delivered dozens of lectures and presentations in North America, Europe, and Asia, and is currently Vice President of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS), a non-partisan, voluntary association that promotes informed debate in Canada on security and intelligence issues.

Barbara A. Nadel:  Is security a high priority in Canada?

Margaret Purdy:  Yes, especially since the events of 9/11. The attacks that day had a profound impact on Canadians' perceptions of the threat environment and the country's vulnerabilities. This is not to say that Canadians "discovered" terrorism on that day. Indeed, 16 years earlier, Vancouver was the point of origin for the most serious act of modern international terrorism up until that point - in terms of numbers of fatalities. Almost-simultaneous bombings on board an Air India plane and at Narita Airport killed 331 persons, most of them Canadians.

Even earlier, Canada had been the venue for assassination attacks on Turkish diplomats by Armenian terrorists, and violence on the part of Tamil and Kurdish terrorist organizations. More recently, as the 20th century was coming to a close, al Qaeda adherent Ahmed Ressam spent considerable time in Canada, acquiring materials for a planned bombing of Los Angeles Intl. Airport. 

Yet none of these earlier events resonated with Canadians in the same way as the 9/11 attacks - partly because of their spectacular nature and partly because they illustrated the maxim that "security trumps the economy." Not only did Canadians worry about the spillover of terrorism to Canadian soil, but they also worried about the impact of increased border security on their economic prosperity. New voices suddenly entered the security dialogue in Canada - economists, manufacturers, bankers, and big business.

To this day, Canada has to counter claims by high-profile U.S. commentators that it is "soft on terrorism," including erroneous accusations that some of the 9/11 hijackers had walked across the U.S.-Canada border.

For all these reasons, security moved from the margins to center stage in Canada following the 2001 terrorist attacks. As someone who had worked in the security sector for 25 years, the changes were breathtaking. The machinery of government - at the Cabinet and public service levels - was reorganized, billions of federal dollars were pumped into security programs, new anti-terrorism legislation was enacted in record time, Canada's first-ever National Security Policy was published, a new border accord was signed with the United States, and Canadians' interest in security soared.

Importantly, the private sector also started taking a keen interest in countering terrorism and securing its facilities and operations as a result of the horrific images of the Twin Towers falling. The interest in learning more about how to respond to the altered threat environment was widespread and included building owners and managers across Canada.

What advice would you offer to building owners and managers in Canada and the United States who want to put appropriate security measures in place?

I would urge them, if they have not already done so, to undertake a serious and careful security assessment of their facilities.  

They should analyze all potential threats and identify which ones are most applicable to their facilities. Based on this threat assessment, building owners need to take stock of deterrence, detection, and prevention measures already in place, and assess what would happen if these measures failed. Impact assessments should take into account not only financial costs, but also inconvenience costs and potential damage to the building's reputation and client confidence. 

In many cases, building owners may conclude that they have adequate and appropriate measures in place; in other cases, the security assessment will reveal gaps or deficiencies needing attention. Importantly, security assessments need to be revisited regularly, as threats, vulnerabilities, and counter-measures are dynamic and ever-changing.

When you use the term "threat," are you thinking mainly of terrorism?

There is no doubt that building owners in Canada and the United States need to take potential terrorist threats into account. Individually - or ideally through their regional or national associations - they need to establish an ongoing dialogue with local and national police and security agencies so that they can keep current with the evolving terrorism threat environment. In cities such as Vancouver, building owners also need to be aware of developments and trends in organized crime, and establish channels to report suspicious activity to the authorities.

Let me open a bracket here and state my personal view that security and intelligence agencies need to share much more information with companies and associations in the private sector, especially with critical infrastructure owners and operators. 

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