Bill Blair served with the Toronto Police Service for 39 years, including as the agency’s chief from 2005-2015. He has served as a Member of Parliament since 2015, and as the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness since 2019. Minister Blair served on the PERF Board of Directors from 2010-2015.

Minister Blair spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about Canada’s recent designation of the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization, the country’s response to COVID-19, and new firearms legislation.

Chuck Wexler:   How did you come to be the Minister of Public Safety in Canada, and what does that entail?

Minister Blair: I was the chief in Toronto for 10 years. Policing done right is really a career in public service, and I wanted to continue in public service. So I looked around for different ways I could serve.

The now-Prime Minister approached me and asked if I’d be interested in running for office and coming to work with him. I told him that I’m not a very political man, and I think most police chiefs are not. We don’t reveal any kind of partisan interest, and we work with everybody. It really is about service and keeping people safe. He said to me, “I’m not looking for more politicians. I need a police chief. I want you to bring that lived experience and perspective to the work of government.”

So I went there, and I’m now the Public Safety Minister for Canada. In that role I have responsibility for all measures related to public safety and emergency preparedness. I also deal with floods, fires, earthquakes, and such. Part of my responsibility is to oversee the federal police service, the RCMP. I also oversee the national security establishment, our spy agencies and other security establishments. I’m also responsible for corrections, so all the prisons in the country, as well as our parole system and our border services. Those all come under my purview.

The closest American parallel might be the responsibilities of the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security.

I also sit at the Cabinet table. As various things come up, like the COVID pandemic, the Prime Minister establishes special working groups within the Cabinet. I serve on the COVID Cabinet committee, as well as the vaccination Cabinet committee.



Wexler:Last week, Canada formally declared the Proud Boys a terrorist group. Why did the government make this decision? What are the practical implications of that designation?

Minister Blair:  Like all countries, we look very comprehensively at all threats from extremism, violence, and terrorism. One of the things we saw emerging about three years ago was a growing threat and concern about what we refer to as ideologically-motivated violent extremist groups. Some are left and some are right, but all of them are violent and dangerous. Most are racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist, anti-Semitic groups. They all strongly advocate extremist actions. They have been on our radar.

In Canada we have a legal process where we list what we call “terrorist entities.” There are significant legal implications to that listing. We look at these organization and consult broadly with our international partners. Our most important partnership is with our Five Eyes partners [Canada, Australia, the UK, New Zealand, and the United States], and in particular with our national security intelligence colleagues and law enforcement colleagues in the United States. So this work is done very collaboratively, and we share a great deal of information.

We identified two groups in 2019, Combat 18 and Blood and Honour, as right-wing violent extremist groups that had been involved in a number of violent activities, including the murder of law enforcement officers. So we listed them as terrorist entities.

That work has continued. The process is such: The national security intelligence agencies and the law enforcement agencies, mostly the RCMP, gather evidence and intelligence. They bring it to me. If I believe that there are reasonable and probable grounds that these entities, organizations, and individuals meet the threshold of our legal definition of a terrorist entity, I check with the Attorney General and go before the Cabinet and Governor General of the Order in Council to list them.

That’s a legal process, not a political process, based entirely on evidence, intelligence, and the law. The reason that’s so important is that it has legal consequences. Banks and financial institutions can freeze their assets. We can have them removed from social media sites. Activities in support of them, including their travel, recruitment, and finances, all constitute serious criminal offenses. And when these entities, organizations, and individuals engage in violent activity, it facilitates the laying of terrorism charges against them. There are real consequences for the listing of these agencies.

That work has been going on for a considerable period of time, and it is an ongoing process. Most recently I brought forward through Order in Council and listed 13 different entities. Nine of those entities are foreign organizations – al Qaeda, ISIS in Africa and Asia, a Kashmir-based terrorist group, etc. The reason we do that is to cut off any financial or other support for those organizations that are active overseas but may have ties to Canada.

We listed four additional ideologically-motivated violent extremist groups. They are the Proud Boys; the Base, which is active in the United States and in Canada; Adam Waffen Division, which is a neo-Nazi organization that has also been involved in a number of violent activities; and the Russian Imperial Movement, which is based primarily in Russia but has been active in supporting other terrorist organizations with training, bomb-making instructions, and other activities. Based on the intelligence and evidence that was gathered, we’ve listed those organizations.

We have several Proud Boy chapters in Canada. In fact, they actually originated in Canada. A man by the name of Gavin MacInnes was the founder. He’s a Canadian, based in Ottawa, and he has since left the organization. They have chapters across Canada. They have been active in a number of concerning incidents, and we have been gathering intelligence on them for some time. But I think it’s appropriate that we closely watch and share intelligence with our law enforcement and national security intelligence colleagues in the U.S. We were watching what happened on January 6 and the weeks and months that led up to it. The activities on January 6 provided my security and law enforcement officials with the trove of new evidence upon which we could make the determination that this extremist group had a violent intent and was taking actions in furtherance of their violent intent, to meet the legal threshold of labeling them as a terrorist entity.

Wexler: Are you concerned about something like January 6 happening in Canada?

Minister Blair: Yes, of course. You know how closely aligned and integrated our countries are economically, socially, and in so many respects. We are not immune to what you have experienced, and we have experienced similar challenges ourselves. We had a Canadian military member who was a member of the Base, and was engaged in very concerning activities. He has recently been apprehended in the U.S., but he began in Canada.

Unfortunately, for many of these groups, their activities don’t respect our borders, so they operate internationally. Those groups and ideologies that threaten security in the United States also threaten my country. We monitor them very carefully and work closely with our security and law enforcement partners across those borders.

The events we witnessed on January 6 were deeply concerning to all of us, including the tragic loss of life. A police officer was murdered, which I think really does reveal the depth of depraved intent of these organizations. They often present themselves as blue line supporters and police supporters, but that’s a façade. They reveal their true intent and motivations through their actions.

It precedes well before the events of January 6. Go back to 2017 and the Charlottesville demonstration. There were actions there that were deeply concerning. We saw them follow up in Portland, Seattle, and Michigan, with the actions of some of these militias. It’s deeply concerning. And I think it’s time for a realization among all of us who are responsible for keeping our people safe and upholding our Constitutions. We have to recognize the threat that violent ideologically-motivated extremists can pose to the peace and security of our countries. Those activities are providing us with a considerable amount of evidence of their true nature and the threat they represent.

It’s not just a matter of listing them as a terrorist entity. There are other things we can and must do in dealing with them more effectively. In my country we’re looking at bringing forward new firearms legislation and extreme-risk laws. I know that’s something that’s often discussed in the United States and effectively implemented in some jurisdictions. One of the things we’ve seen from a lot of these violent extremist groups is that firearms are very important to them. So placing reasonable and appropriate restrictions on their access to firearms if they demonstrate violent intent is something we’re looking very hard at in Canada as well.

Wexler: What are the implications of this designation for local police?

Minister Blair: One of the things that we’ve seen with these ideologically-motivated extremist groups is they have been very actively trying to recruit within law enforcement, former law enforcement, and former military. So I hope this sends a really strong signal to anybody who might get confused that these people are supporters or somehow aligned with us. We recognize the threat they represent through their extremist ideologies, and their willingness to use violence to advance those ideologies. I think it’s the antithesis of everything every cop is or should be. And so I hope that sends an appropriate message.

I think it also provides law enforcement with some clear guidance and good tools. It has a chilling effect on some of their online recruitment and extremist activities online. It puts their finances in jeopardy.

We had eight chapters of the Proud Boys in Canada. Two of them disbanded the day we named them. That doesn’t mean that they won’t go scurrying into the bowels of the internet and other extremist activity. But that labeling, as a terrorist entity, does have a profound effect. And I think it helps all Canadians recognize that these ideologically-motivated extremist groups represent a real threat.

In my opinion, it represents the greatest threat to our domestic security. I think we’ve done a very good job of protecting ourselves against foreign interference and the activities of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The threat still remains, and we still remain focused on it. But a new threat has emerged in our own countries and our own communities. I think shining a light on that threat is the necessary thing to do.



Wexler: Canada has maintained lower rates of COVID infections and deaths than the United States, but the country has had over 800,000 cases and over 20,000 deaths. What has been the role of the police in addressing this crisis? Are police being used to enforce public health orders?

Minister Blair: We’re all in on this. The whole of government and the whole of civil society are working hard to try to control the threat of this pandemic.

One of the first things we did, and I think we did fairly effectively, was implement very strong border controls. It’s very difficult to absolutely stop a virus from entering your country, but I think it’s possible to slow it down. We have been working hard to slow it down while we await the implementation of vaccines. We started that work at the border.

I remember one morning calling the Acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and saying, “What do you think about closing the border between our two countries?” We talked about that for a few minutes. We talked about the importance of maintaining essential workers and supply lines, but closing it to all non-essential travel. He talked to the Vice President and President, and I talked to the Prime Minister. Less than 24 hours later, we closed the longest undefended border to all non-essential travel, and it remained closed.

We also closed all non-essential flights into the country from every country. Those measures have proven very effective.

We have seen pretty good compliance with our social distancing, mask-wearing, and other hygiene orders. Canadians have been fairly supportive of those and compliant. I think our provinces have taken some pretty effective actions with lockdowns where necessary. We’ve limited inter-provincial travel. We’ve taken a lot of steps. It’s been hugely impactful on our society and our economy, but we’ve been doing our very best to try to slow down the advent of the virus. And we’re still in the middle of that work, and we add additional layers of protection.

For example, when the new variants emerged in the UK, we stopped all flights from the United Kingdom. When we saw the variants were now spreading to other countries, we required everyone coming to Canada to have a negative test before they’re allow entry.

As for the role of the police, I have not placed a lot of emphasis on enforcement. We place a lot of emphasis on compliance. We do that through education and good communications. We have had instances where people have proven to be noncompliant, and the police have done some enforcement there.

Wexler: How are you managing COVID in your jails and prisons?

Minister Blair: We have 43 federal institutions in which we house federal offenders, who are people serving sentences longer than two years, mostly lifers. We had five outbreaks in those prisons. We worked with the local public health authority to immediately go into those prisons and do infection control audits and occupational health and safety audits. All prisoners and correction workers were issued personal protection equipment. We established a testing regime so that they were all regularly tested as well. We put in restrictions for visitors.

We were really aggressive, and by June we didn’t have a single infection in our prisons. We’ve had a couple outbreaks since, and we’ve jumped on them in exactly the same way. We’ve taken really vigorous infection control measures, testing, tracing, and use of personal protection equipment. And I advocated for and we prioritized the most vulnerable in the prison system for early vaccines. So the elderly and the people with very significant pre-existing health conditions within the prison were prioritized for vaccines.

I am responsible for a fairly substantial population in custody. In all our prison systems, we’ve had three deaths since the onset of the pandemic, and none among our corrections staff.

Wexler: Canada has administered at least one dose of the vaccine to 1.7% of its population, and 0.5% of the population is fully vaccinated. When will police officers receive the vaccine? Are you seeing any vaccine hesitancy among officers?

Minister Blair: First of all, we have not been as quick as America at acquiring vaccines for our population. We don’t have any domestic production here. You have a big Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan that’s pumping out a lot of Pfizer doses for America. We’re also buying vaccines from Pfizer, but we have to get ours from Belgium. So we’ve had some supply issues in getting them out there.

Our priority so far has been the elderly, particularly those in congregate living settings like long-term care facilities, and healthcare workers. There is discussion about how we will roll it out. For first responders, police whose jobs put them in close proximity to people who might be infected should be prioritized, perhaps, more than the person in the back office who isn’t at the same level of risk.

Our first priority has been those in high-risk congregate living settings, so that’s where we’re going first. We have a vaccine committee, and we’re trying to determine appropriate distribution. Of course, I advocate for the need to make sure we protect first responders because of the important work they do and the fact that they’re made vulnerable by that important work. So it is a priority.

Of course we get the advocacy from the unions. They all want to be at the front of the line. And I believe people in Canada are overwhelmingly vaccine-ready and supportive. They want it, and they want it quicker. So we’re pretty confident that about 80% of the population will seek and obtain the vaccine, which we need to achieve that critical mass. Our plan is to have everybody vaccinated by the end of September. I think that’s very consistent with America’s goal.

Wexler: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Minister Blair: I’m about to introduce very comprehensive firearms legislation. Last May I banned assault rifles in Canada, so all assault rifles are banned in my country. I’m finishing that ban off and introducing some additional measures. I had a look at President Biden’s platform commitments around firearms, and I felt he must’ve been looking over my shoulder at the legislation I drafted. We’re bringing extreme risk laws, red flag and yellow flag laws, much as he’s advocated for. We’ve already banned assault rifles. We’re taking a number of other steps, very consistent with that approach.

My colleagues said, “Why is it so consistent between you and President Biden?” And I told them it was because I was a member of PERF. I remember when you and Chuck Ramsey went to the White House with the Obama Administration and sat around the table with then-Vice President Biden talking about these things. I wasn’t in the room, but I was on the PERF board. I remember what we talked about. I remember all those issues. That’s what I’ve brought forward to the government of Canada as the legislative approach that we’re taking to firearms. I’ll continue to keep you informed of the progress and the work that we’re doing on it.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.