Canada’s public safety minister says that he can only assume that security agencies permitted an arrangement allowing a Chinese police owned company to operate Canada’s visa application centre in Beijing.
According to Bill Blair, who was speaking during a meeting between members of the special committee on Canada-China relations, the assumption can only be made on his part as the subcontracting of the centre’s operation was put in place during the time of the previous Conservative government in 2008.
Blair’s comments comes as a response to questioning from several committee members over the arrangement, which was revealed earlier this month in a report from The Globe and Mail.
The Globe’s report revealed that a Chinese police owned business, the Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Company, was operating Canada’s visa-application centre in Beijing and was ultimately in charge of collecting details of people applying for visas to Canada and other countries. The report also found that several workers in the centre were members of the Communist Party — a regime that has either punished or arrested dissidents trying to flee the country.
During the meeting, Blair faced questions from opposition MPs on whether the applicants’ personal data could be given to the Chinese government and whether or not he could guarantee the security of the data.
According to Blair, all application and biometric data handled at the visa application centre was not stored on-site, and the use of databases with personal information had to be followed by Canada’s rules. Blair said that he was assured by the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) that the visa information was secure.
“I want to provide you and Canadians with assurances that information is always handled according to our privacy laws,” said Blair in response to Bloc Quebecois MP Stephane Bergeron’s questions concerning the data’s confidentiality.
“There are also safeguards in place to ensure that personal information is collected, store and transmitted securely using hard end to end encryption.”
New Democrat MP Jack Harris then questioned Blair on which exact national security agency had signed off on the subcontract to the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau.
“I have some difficulty, frankly, answering your question Mr. Harris about the origins of this contract,” Blair said.
“It was signed in 2008, before we were the government. So it’s been in place for 12 years now and so its origin and who actually authorized this contract predates me or my government and frankly my knowledge.”
Blair however stressed that he was only able to able to “make an assumption” that the procurement process to contract the company was properly followed, as it was originally set in place 12 years ago.
“That’s not much comfort I have to say on behalf of myself,” responded Harris.
The meeting comes amid a turbulent period in Canada’s relationship with China. In 2018, Chinese authorities detained Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in what was widely perceived as retaliation for the RCMP’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou a week earlier.
Last week, Canadian lawmakers successfully passed a motion to formally recognize China’s treatment of its ethnic Muslim Uighur population as a genocide. The motion, put forward by the Conservatives, passed overwhelmingly with 266 votes to zero, though the Liberal cabinet had abstained from voting.
Members of the special committee also stressed the issue of Chinese interference in Canada’s electoral process, as well as the country’s cybersecurity against any perceived threats.