Canada’s public safety minister says the federal government is exploring all options to combat foreign interference as “threats abound” for national security.
But Marco Mendicino added any new laws introduced must “strike the balance” between security and ensuring the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is respected — including any potential foreign agent registry or similar measures targeting covert and hostile actors.
“We are at a point in our national security landscape where there are threats abound when it comes to foreign interference,” he told Mercedes Stephenson in an interview on The West Block that aired Sunday. “That means having the agility and the capacity to mitigate and respond to them.
“It’s important that we equip the state with all the tools that are necessary to mitigate against potential threats to our security and to our national interests. But we also have to do it in a way that is transparent and that is compliant with the law and the Charter.”
Mendicino told The Canadian Press earlier this month that he was looking “very carefully” at the creation of a foreign agent registry — a move that would align with allies like the United States and the United Kingdom. When asked if he would also look at measures like hostile foreign actor laws, Mendicino would only say the government is “keeping the options open” and is “open to exploring new tools.”
Global News reported in November that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet were allegedly briefed in January 2022 that the Chinese Consulate in Toronto directed a clandestine election-interference network in 2019, which intelligence sources allege is a loosely affiliated group of Liberals and Conservatives funded by the Chinese Communist Party to help advance its political objectives in Canada.
Other intelligence sources told Global that the consulate disbursed $250,000 through proxies to the network, which allegedly included an Ontario MPP, and at least 11 federal candidates and 14 staffers.
While the briefings did not conclude that Beijing funded any campaigns directly, that’s how the issue has been interpreted at times in the political debate in the House of Commons.
Government documents released last week showed the Privy Council Office had signs of Beijing’s alleged attempts to interfere with the 2019 general election. A heavily redacted “daily intelligence brief” memo dated Feb. 20, 2020, that was reviewed by Global News describes “an active foreign interference (FI) network” under the heading of “Canada-China.”
The PCO regularly briefs the Prime Minister’s Office and appropriate cabinet ministers on national security intelligence.
Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, who was public safety minister at the time the memo was prepared, confirmed to reporters Friday that he had seen the memo and that its determinations “certainly” played a role in shaping increased government focus on electoral interference.
Mendicino told The West Block that he and other cabinet officials are briefed on national security threats “all the time,” including on foreign interference. He did not say if he had also seen the 2020 memo when he was the immigration minister.
Gun amendment will be fine-tuned
Mendicino was also pressed on the proposed amendment to the Liberals’ new gun control bill that Indigenous people, sporting groups and opposition MPs say will ban common hunting rifles along with what the government describes as “assault-style” weapons.
The term is not a legal classification in Canada, where firearms are either prohibited, restricted, or non-restricted — and automatic weapons are already listed as prohibited.
The controversial Liberal amendment to Bill C-21 seeks to define “assault-style” into law though, and the implications of the proposed definition are what critics say would unfairly catch up hunting weapons.
“We know that there have been concerns that have been expressed, which is why we’re going to support the committee in its study of this bill, we’re going to engage with hunters and farmers and Indigenous peoples who have expressed concerns to make whatever fine-tuning to get this right,” he said.
The House of Commons public safety committee is in the midst of discussing whether to pause its clause-by-clause review of the amendment to hold up to eight additional meetings and hear from impacted witnesses.
Those meetings could potentially include travel to the North to hear from Indigenous groups there, but the decision of the House of Commons to rise early last week stalled those talks.
While Mendicino said he is hopeful the legislation will be passed as quickly as possible in the new year, the committee’s additional work could push potential approval to at least the spring.
He said the amendment was based on advice from “nonpartisan professional public servants, including law enforcement,” but acknowledged it requires additional “thoughtful and careful study.
“I think the vast majority of the models that are listed and the ones that would be captured by the objective criteria in the evergreen provision would not be controversial,” he said, pointing to the AR-15 rifle and similar weapons used in the Polytechnique mass shooting as examples.
“This is part of a broader plan in (Bill) C-21, at the border, in prevention, to eradicate gun violence. We’re on the right track here and will move forward and bring Canadians along with us.”
— with files from Global News’ Alex Boutilier and Sam Cooper