Mendicino says national security ‘at no time’ threatened by China-linked RCMP contract

Click to play video: 'National security ‘at no time’ under threat after contracts awarded to Sinclair Technologies: Mendicino'
National security ‘at no time’ under threat after contracts awarded to Sinclair Technologies: Mendicino
Testifying at the House of Commons’ Industry Committee on Monday about federal contracts awarded to a firm with ties to the Chinese government, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said that “at no time” was Canada’s national security under threat. Mendicino said that the company, Sinclair Technologies, did not have access to the RCMP’s radio frequencies, which are protected with end-to-end encryption – Jan 30, 2023

Canada’s public safety minister insisted Monday that federal contracts awarded to a firm that has ties to the Chinese government “at no time” threatened national security, but the contracts were still suspended out of an abundance of caution.

Yet RCMP officials who testified alongside Marco Mendicino at the House of Commons industry committee about the contracts identified gaps in the procurement process for sensitive technologies that could be improved to avoid employing firms tied to “hostile actors.”

Mendicino also said he and his ministry were looking at further improvements to national security legislation and ensuring the protection of critical infrastructure. He said those would be on top of the government’s cybersecurity bill C-26.

“It is important that we remain vigilant, and vigilance demands that we constantly reassess the situation to be sure that we protect our critical infrastructure from potential foreign interference,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

Last month, reports emerged that Ontario-based Sinclair Technologies had been given 24 contracts since 2009, including work for the Department of Defence, the RCMP and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Read more: National Defence to probe past contracts awarded to firm now tied to China

Three of the 24 contracts have been awarded to the company since 2017, when Hytera Communications bought Sinclair’s parent company.

The Chinese government owns about 10 per cent of Hytera through an investment fund, Radio-Canada first reported on Dec. 7. Hytera is also blacklisted by the United States Federal Communications Commission over national security concerns.

Yet in 2021, the company was granted a $549,637 RCMP contract for a radio frequency filtering system — one that is valid until March 31, 2024.

RCMP Deputy Commissioner Bryan Larkin told the committee that the equipment, which he and Mendicino likened to “a tin can” with a series of rods and cables, does not pose any security concerns and does not allow access to radio communications.

Click to play video: 'Liberals address questions over terminated defence contract with Chinese links'
Liberals address questions over terminated defence contract with Chinese links

An internal audit that deconstructed the filtration equipment has confirmed its security has not been breached or compromised, he added. Further spot checks on the equipment will be performed across the country in the coming weeks.

Story continues below advertisement

However, the focus of many committee members was less on the equipment’s security and more on how the contract was awarded in the first place.

Although Mendicino assured that the RCMP and Public Service and Procurement Canada (PSPC)’s national security protocols were followed “assiduously,” RCMP chief financial officer Samantha Hazen acknowledged she relied on the PSPC that had a more complete list of foreign suppliers — including those that may pose a risk to national security.

“I don’t have access myself to a listing of all suppliers abroad, and that is why in my capacity at the RCMP I rely on the processes in place by the federal government and I validate these transactions with the PSPC,” she said.

Hazen added she was “not personally aware” of the 21 espionage-related charges Hytera faces in the United States for allegedly stealing technology from Motorola Solutions.

Read more: RCMP scraps tech contract worth $550K with firm tied to China after outcry

Both Hazen and Larkin also said the RCMP does not have its own lists of communications equipment and services that pose a national security threat, similar to those produced by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

“I guess this is why we see these relatively … small procurements can slip through the cracks,” Conservative MP Rich Perkins said in response.

Story continues below advertisement

Larkin said an internal audit launched when the contracts with Sinclair were made public is intended to identify improvements to the RCMP’s security protocols and intelligence sharing.

He noted that contracted employees are never allowed unsupervised access to critical infrastructure when installing or monitoring equipment, with RCMP security personnel always accompanying them during that work.

Mendicino told the committee he has instructed all agencies within his portfolio — including the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency — to “apply the strictest of standards” when purchasing equipment, technology and services that could be exploited by hostile actors.

However, the minister would not definitely say if the contract with Sinclair, which is currently suspended but not cancelled outright, would be reinstated once reviews are completed.

Although he re-emphasized the radio filtration equipment was not at risk, he added those malicious actors “do look for vectors, for entry points” to exploit their interests.

“But I’m confident that we have protocols in place, procedures in place, and certainly when it comes to the procurement of the equipment here, there were no breaches of security,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau on the hot seat: PM questioned on China, inflation, trucker protests and more'
Trudeau on the hot seat: PM questioned on China, inflation, trucker protests and more

The news that federal civil servants granted an RCMP contract to a company with ties to the Chinese government is “disconcerting,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Montreal last month.

Story continues below advertisement

At the time, the prime minister and Mendicino also vowed to do an assessment of the contract and its awarding process.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre also added his voice to the chorus of concern, calling for the contract to be “banned and reversed” by the government as soon as possible.

The RCMP told Global News in a statement at the time that radio frequency filtration equipment “poses no security concerns nor does it allow access to radio communications.”

Read more: RCMP contract awarded to firm reportedly tied to China ‘disconcerting,’ Trudeau says

Of the 24 contracts the company, which designs and manufactures communications equipment, has been awarded since 2009, 12 of them were awarded to the Department of Defence. Sinclair Technologies was awarded a total of $252,296 between 2009 and 2013 to work on “antennas, waveguides and related equipment,” according to procurement data.

A department official told Global News at the time that the defence contracts appeared to be mainly for antenna devices that amplify and receive but don’t transmit information.

The other 12 contracts the company has been awarded since 2009 included work for the RCMP and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

A DND spokesperson told Global News last month that it is “aware of the concerns” surrounding Sinclair Technologies.

Story continues below advertisement

“We are investigating these procurements and the way in which this equipment is used, alongside counterparts in other government departments,” they said.

News of the contracts emerged on the heels of Global News reporting on allegations of Chinese interference and influence in Canada.

Click to play video: 'New documents reveal key information of alleged Chinese election interference in Canada’s 2019 election'
New documents reveal key information of alleged Chinese election interference in Canada’s 2019 election

A Spanish civil rights group, Safeguard Defenders, also revealed in a report last year that there were Chinese police operations around the world, including three in Toronto and at least one in Vancouver.

The RCMP has since said it is investigating those reports and urged anyone with information to come forward.

The government has also upped its rhetoric against China in recent months. Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly unveiled the country’s Indo-Pacific strategy in November, which labelled China an “increasingly disruptive global power.”

Story continues below advertisement

Earlier that same month, Joly warned Canadians doing business in China to consider the “geopolitical risks” involved with that choice.

— with files from Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea

Sponsored content