Foreign influence registry among new proposals to fight interference

Click to play video: 'More foreign interference actions coming after inquiry report, India arrests: LeBlanc'
More foreign interference actions coming after inquiry report, India arrests: LeBlanc
WATCH: More foreign interference actions coming after inquiry report, India arrests: LeBlanc – May 5, 2024

New legislation aims to create a public foreign influence registry and broaden warrant powers and investigative tools for Canada’s intelligence service to combat foreign interference, Ottawa said Monday.

The proposed legislation also includes new and updated criminal offences for sabotage, political interference and other crimes committed on behalf of foreign entities, including increased prison sentences that range up to life behind bars.

“We’re taking action to adapt and to respond to a world where life, and consequently threats, are increasingly moving to the online realm,” Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters after tabling the legislation alongside Justice Minister and Attorney General Arif Virani.

Critically, the legislation will also allow the Canada Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) to share sensitive information on foreign threats beyond the halls of Parliament Hill.

Bill C-70, the Countering Foreign Interference Act, comes amid increasing pressure on the federal government to strengthen its measures against foreign interference, particularly against elections and diaspora communities. A public inquiry into the matter has said attempts by foreign actors to meddle in the last two federal elections undermined Canadians’ trust.

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A chief provision of the legislation is the creation of the foreign influence registry, which has been long promised but delayed for more than a year.

The registry will be administered by an independent foreign influence transparency commissioner to prevent political interference, which government officials said was a key request raised in consultations.

Click to play video: 'Foreign interference a ‘stain on the electoral process,’ inquiry finds'
Foreign interference a ‘stain on the electoral process,’ inquiry finds

Under the bill, anyone working with a foreign power, entity or state who is in communication with a public office holder, communicating political or government information to the public, or distributing money or items of value are required to register their activities with the commissioner.

Those agents must also provide updates on their activities with the commissioner, who will oversee the publicly-available registry.

Participation in candidate nomination contests and elections, as well as on developing public policy, influencing public officials’ decision-making and spreading communications on social media fall under actions that would require registration, according to the bill.

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Diplomatic and consular officials from foreign states are not required to register, nor are foreign politicians who visit Canada on official government business.

Anyone who violates the measures can face up to $5 million in fines and up to five years in prison. The commissioner may forward information it receives to law enforcement if necessary.

If the bill is approved, it provides a one-year timeline for the commissioner’s office and the registry to be set up following royal assent. Government officials said the timeline speaks to the registry being a “priority” for the public safety ministry.

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LeBlanc said he is hopeful all the provisions included in the bill are in place by the time of the next federal election.

“We intend to proceed quickly,” he said.

“I’m not pessimistic that we can’t build a consensus around the importance of having this legislation in place as quickly as possible.”

Click to play video: 'Foreign interference inquiry: Trudeau acknowledges erosion of public trust following report’s release'
Foreign interference inquiry: Trudeau acknowledges erosion of public trust following report’s release

New CSIS, Criminal Code measures

The multi-pronged legislation also includes updates to the CSIS Act, Criminal Code, Security and Information Act and Canada Evidence Act.

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It would allow CSIS to provide more specific information when it warns Canadian individuals or businesses about foreign security threats they may face. Previously, the agency was unable to disclose such information outside of the federal government.

The bill would also broaden the warrant powers CSIS could pursue for the purposes of an investigation, including seeking foreign intelligence that resides outside the country “from within Canada.” New CSIS warrants would be introduced for specific investigative techniques, including in digital spaces.

It would also create a streamlined process under the Canada Evidence Act relating to the protection and use of sensitive information in proceedings such as judicial reviews and statutory appeals in Federal Court.

The proposed Criminal Code changes include broadening the existing law against sabotage to include actions taken against critical infrastructure. Examples include cyberattacks on health-care, transportation and energy systems.

It also adds an exemption for sabotage offenses committed in an act of “advocacy, protest or dissent” if they were not seeking to undermine national security.

The legislation would create targeted foreign interference offences aimed at deceptive or surreptitious acts that undermine democratic processes. An example would be covertly influencing the outcome of a political process such as the nomination of a candidate, the government says.

Another new offence would outlaw deceptive or clandestine acts that harm Canadian interests — for instance, helping foreign agents posing as tourists to enter Canada.

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In addition, the bill would amend the law to better address foreign intimidation of members of diaspora communities in Canada.

Click to play video: 'LeBlanc reiterates importance to ‘uphold Canadian trust’ after foreign election report release'
LeBlanc reiterates importance to ‘uphold Canadian trust’ after foreign election report release

The bill was announced days after a double dose of announcements related to foreign interference brought the issue back into the spotlight Friday.

The commissioner overseeing an inquiry into foreign attempts to meddle in Canada’s last two elections released an interim report that found those attempts undermined the rights of Canadian voters because they “tainted the process” and eroded public trust, even though they did not change the overall results.

Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue stressed Ottawa needs to “work hard” to restore that trust by both informing Canadians of the threat of foreign interference and taking “real and concrete steps” to detect and deter it.

Hours after that report was released, RCMP announced it had arrested three Indian nationals charged with murder and conspiracy in the 2023 killing of B.C. Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, whom India had declared was a “terrorist.” The federal government has said there are “credible allegations of a potential link” between Nijjar’s death and agents of the Indian government.

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Global News reported Nijjar was warned by Canadian Security and Intelligence Service officers that “professional assassins” were after him, and that India had tried to get the RCMP to arrest Nijjar on allegations that were deemed to be not credible.

Asked in an interview that aired Sunday on The West Block if he was still confident in Canada’s security and intelligence services after they failed to prevent Nijjar’s death, and in the wake of Hogue’s interim report, LeBlanc said he was.

He also defended the actions the government has taken so far to strengthen those agencies’ ability to combat foreign threats, but added he agreed with Hogue’s conclusion that more needs to be done, and hinted at the new legislation announced Monday.

Mixed reactions

The Business Council of Canada applauded the new bill, saying CSIS would be able to communicate more specific and tangible information with Canadian companies.

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“This would give business leaders a clearer understanding of the growing threat, as well as the protective measures that could be taken to better safeguard their employees, customers and the communities in which they operate,” said council president Goldy Hyder.

More needs to be done to address foreign interference, especially actions that involve threats or lead to actual harm, said the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, a coalition of 45 organizations including Amnesty International, the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Muslim Forum.

However, many of the proposals in the bill go far beyond addressing foreign interference and will have wide-ranging impacts on the rights and liberties of people in Canada, the monitoring group said.

This includes significant changes to CSIS’s powers to secretly collect and analyze troves of information about Canadians, what information CSIS can disclose and to whom, and new rules around what evidence can be disclosed in open court, the group said.

“These and other changes deserve their own specific scrutiny but instead are being lumped in with another omnibus bill.”

With files from the Canadian Press

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