Canadian officials knew for years existing laws didn’t curb foreign influence

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Feds aim to curb foreign influence
WATCH: As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces questions about China allegedly interfering in Canada's 2019 federal election, the federal government is considering creating a foreign agent registry. Mackenzie Gray explains the potential implications of this strategy – Dec 2, 2022

Canadian officials have known for years that the country’s existing laws did not cover foreign governments’ interference in domestic politics, documents reviewed by Global News suggest.

The documents were unearthed just as Canada’s public safety minister said the government was looking at ways to beef up its defence against foreign influence in domestic affairs.

December 2020 emails at Global Affairs Canada, obtained by Global News under access to information law, state that officials were aware that some types of foreign influence in Canadian politics slipped through the cracks of existing laws. Examples in the documents include foreign investment in university research, as well as “communications activities” to promote foreign agendas.

Canadian intelligence officials and Parliament’s national security committee have cautioned for years that foreign governments – most notably China, Russia, and Iran – are actively trying to influence Canadian affairs. Some of this activity is overt, while other influence operations remain in the shadows.

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The documents reviewed by Global News were part of preparations for a House of Commons speech by former Global Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne on the issue of Chinese interference in Canadian politics.

The speech, drafted for a December late debate in the House of Commons at the prompting of the opposition Conservatives, originally suggested existing laws were sufficient to curb foreign influence. But an objection from a foreign affairs bureaucrat – their name was censored in the documents – cautioned that wasn’t true.

“There are several situations not covered by the Lobbying Act and the Conflict of Interest Act, such as for instance an agent undertaking communication activity or engaging in a big disbursement of activities on behalf of a foreign government,” the email reads.

“Some of these activities would be covered if happening under election periods by the Canada Elections Act, but foreign interference is not limited to those periods.”

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The official gave the example of foreign powers funding university research “in order to promote certain narratives or muzzle others.” Canada’s intelligence agencies – including the Canadians Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) – have recently dramatically increased their partnerships with university research institutions, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis.

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The spy agencies were concerned that hostile foreign powers – notably China and Russia – would attempt to harvest cutting-edge pandemic research from Canada’s universities and health networks.

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While officials have known for years that existing laws did not adequately cover Canada from foreign intervention, Ottawa has been reluctant to bring in new powers – such as a registry of people engaged by foreign powers to try and influence Canadian policy.

On Friday, The Canadian Press reported that Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino is considering taking that step – as close security allies like the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom have done.

“The fact is that the landscape of foreign interference is becoming increasingly complex … One of the proposals that we are looking very carefully at is the creation of a foreign agent registry,” Mendicino said in an interview.

“We hope to have more to say about that in the very short term. But we are very much looking forward to going out and having a good consultation.”

Global News reported in November that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet were briefed in January 2022 that the Chinese Consulate in Toronto directed a clandestine election interference network in 2019. Intelligence sources told Global News that it included a loosely-affiliated group of Liberals and Conservatives which benefited from funding from the Chinese Communist Party to help advance Beijing’s political objectives in Canada.

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Other intelligence sources told Global News the consulate disbursed $250,000 through proxies to the network, which allegedly included an Ontario MPP and at least 11 federal candidates. Intelligence sources now tell Global News that as many as 14 political staffers were involved in the network.

While the briefings did not conclude that Beijing funded campaigns directly, that is how Trudeau and political leaders have chosen to interpret the reporting in House of Commons debates.

But the internal government documents reviewed by Global News suggest that, just over a year after the 2019 campaign, Global Affairs Canada was working on a cost benefit analysis about introducing a registry of foreign agents operating in Canada.

“(We are) currently working on a note that assess the pros and cons of the U.S. and Australian legislations to inform future (Government of Canada) policy development and decision making,” the unnamed official wrote in December 2020.

Kenny Chiu, a former Conservative MP who lost his Richmond, B.C., seat in the 2021 election, proposed a similar registry ahead of the general election. The bill went nowhere – dying when the election was called – and Chiu blames his loss, in part, on his stance against Beijing’s interference.

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The 2020 Global Affairs documents noted some questions about the efficacy of foreign agent registries, which have subsequently been adopted by Tory government in the U.K. Referring to the Australian example, the email noted that legal scholars have called into question that country’s foreign agent transparency regime on human rights concerns.

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That debate has yet to begin in Canada, but if Mendicino’s comments Friday are to be believed, it’s about to.

Beijing has denied any attempt to meddle in Canada’s affairs – a claim belied by Parliament’s national security committee and the country’s intelligence agencies.

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