THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 24, Season 12
Sunday, March 5, 2023
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Artur Wilczynski, Former Assistant Deputy Minister,
Communications Security Establishment
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star; and Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail
Mercedes Stephenson: Is Ottawa doing enough to tell you what foreign countries like China are doing to interfere in our democracy?
The opposition says absolutely not. Prime Minister Trudeau says his government is on top of it. So what’s the truth?
I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.
With allegations flying about China’s medaling, we cut through the political noise. Two top officials, who served under Justin Trudeau in the Privy Council Office and with Canada’s Signals Intelligence Agency, answer questions about the threat of foreign interference and what can be done.
And our inside politics panel weighs in on the prime minister’s response to questions.
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: “Justin Trudeau has ducked more questions than there have been spy balloons shot down by NORAD over this one, really.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And, calls for a public inquiry.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: He’s resisting efforts for a national—a public inquiry, which there should be.
Mercedes Stephenson: Questions about China interfering in Canada’s democracy and medaling in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections have been swirling around Parliament Hill for months now, but the issue has really been heating up over the past week.
The much anticipated Rosenberg Report came out, noting senior civil servants found there was foreign interference in the 2021 election but that it was not significant enough to affect the legitimacy of the results. And parliamentarians grilled senior national security officials about who knew what, when, on China’s interference in Canada’s democracy.
There were not a lot of answers, but the committee did pass a recommendation for a public inquiry.
If you’re wondering what all of this means, you’re not alone. So we’ve brought in two former senior public servants to talk about this.
Joining me now is former Privy Council clerk, Michael Wernick and former Communications and Security Establishment assistant deputy minister, Artur Wilczynski. Thank you both for joining us.
Artur Wilczynski, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Communications Security Establishment: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: You are both experts on how government works and intelligence, so we wanted to put some of these questions to you. The first big one is trust, I think. Canadians are wondering. What is the truth in all of this? We heard the prime minister say on Friday, basically everything is fine again. Sure there are concerns, but everything is fine.
Let’s start with Michael. Is everything fine when it comes to foreign interference?
Michael Wernick, Former Clerk of the Privy Council: Well I think one of the driving issues here is retaining the confidence of Canadians, trust of Canadians in not just elections but their political institutions, their democracy, in politicians. So the issue is much broader than where it started a few weeks ago about China’s role in a specific election. I think we do now have an issue about retaining Canadians trust in their democratic process.
Mercedes Stephenson: And how do you think that needs to be addressed?
Artur Wilczynski, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Communications Security Establishment: So I think transparency is essential and I think transparency is something that we can do more of within the security intelligence community. But I think as Michael said, you know, restoring Canadians trust in all institutions of our democracy are important. So there are two elements of that. One, we have to have an appropriate retrospective look at what happened and I think we have some really important institutions in Canada that can help us do that. Things like the national security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians that specifically was created to address these kinds of things, and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency. Both of these organizations were recently created by Parliament. They have a role to look at this. They have the skillset, the equipment and the classification needed to look at intelligence. But then we need to look forward. What can government institutions and leaders do to restore Canadians’ confidence in our democratic institutions and to be ready for the evolving threat of foreign interference in Canada.
Mercedes Stephenson: And the reality is there could be an election any time. We are in a minority situation and it may not be the NDP who pulls the rug. It could be Justin Trudeau deciding this file’s getting too hot, and it seems like there’s still not a lot of answers. And to your point, Artur about transparency, why do you think it is that we have all these senior government officials and we keep hearing that’s classified. That’s classified. Obviously some of it is classified, but you have intelligence agencies leaking information to journalists because they’re so concerned, is what these sources are telling us, about what’s going on. What should we know that you know from your time in government about what this interference looks like and how closely intelligence agencies are paying attention to it?
Artur Wilczynski, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Communications Security Establishment: Well first of all, there’s not a black and white definition of what is interference or inappropriate interference. We’re an open country and there are lots of embassies in this town, and foreign companies, and journalists and advocates, trying to influence the policies of the Government of Canada and there are lots of Canadians who have strong views about international affairs. There’s nothing wrong with that. What the worry is, is tampering in the actual processes of elections so that that you aren’t getting the free and fair outcome, which is, you know, expresses the will of Canadians. But as I keep saying, it’s more than just elections. There is the entire period in between, the conduct of political parties, government institutions and so on. It’s a broad set of issues. And the front line of it, these days, is disinformation and misinformation campaigns. And they come from all corners of the world. So there’s more to it than just one country and there’s more to it than just, you know, agents of foreign governments that are openly working for them. So it’s not that easy to detect and, you know, the tools for dealing with it, you know, would often land in law enforcement. I don’t think everybody understands that our security intelligence agencies collect information, and very important information, but the decisions about whether to press charges or arrest somebody, arrest with an independent police and an independent crown attorney’s, they set a very, very high threshold for that.
Michael Wernick, Former Clerk of the Privy Council: And that’s why there’s a lot of, I think, concern about illegal disclosures, is because those disclosures have the potential effect of impeding the ability of law enforcement, impeding intelligence agencies to actually access the information that is required in order to help mitigate the risk posed by foreign interference. Sources could be compromised. Individuals who are—who work in the domain can be compromised, and the investigations themselves can be compromised by this kind of leak. And at the end of the day, what national security intelligence agencies are there for, is to provide information to policy makers so that they then in turn can make decisions that are in the national interest. If those are hindered, if that ability is hindered by disclosures, the—you know, the ability to see what’s happening, the ability to then mitigate the risks to Canadian communities, to Canadian institutions is hampered and that’s not in our interest.
Artur Wilczynski, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Communications Security Establishment: I’ll just use an analogy that any journalist would recognize. You know the importance of confidential sources to a journalist and you know how easy it would be sometimes to triangulate and figure out oh, that must be the source. And so the same in security and intelligence, there is a balancing act that you need enough transparency to retain that trust and confidence. But if you go too far, then you reveal collection methods and sources, and you would compromise your future ability to keep gathering that information.
Mercedes Stephenson: And it sounds like some of the frustration from the intelligence sources we’re working with, is that they don’t feel they’re being heard or that those investigations are being taken, and that’s obviously their perception. But I do want to ask you, Artur, when you were at CSE, which some of viewers might not know what that is. It’s our signals intelligence agency.
Artur Wilczynski, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Communications Security Establishment: It’s our signals intel agency.
Mercedes Stephenson: So you can intercept not from Canadians but from foreign actors.
Artur Wilczynski, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Communications Security Establishment: Correct.
Mercedes Stephenson: Emails, phone calls, internet traffic. You’re monitoring all that, so you would see a lot of discussion about this. When you were in your position there, how serious was foreign interference?
Artur Wilczynski, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Communications Security Establishment: Foreign interference is an absolutely key intelligence priority for the Government of Canada. I think that the integrity of our democratic institutions is a core national interest, and intelligence priorities are set by what our national interests are. So, you know, our role within the Communication Security Establishment is that foreign intelligence component, to look outside of Canada, to look at what the intents and capabilities are of hostile actors. And it’s one of the reasons why the Communication Security Establishment both in 2019 and in ’21, issued a threat assessment. What are the threats to Canadian elections, because it was important to have that kind of transparency with Canadians to tell them to be mindful? To tell political parties that they need to protect their technology and their data and their cyber systems, because it’s persistent, it’s growing and it’s becoming more sophisticated. And I think that this is why looking forward in terms of not just understanding what happened in 2019 and 2021, that’s important. But how do we continue to have this conversation in a transparent way so that Canadians know what are the security agencies doing to protect the electoral systems? What are officers of Parliament like? You know the elections commissioner and the head of Elections Canada, what are they doing? What are political parties doing to ensure that we have the right calibrated approach to mitigate risks to our democracy? It’s foundational and it’s ongoing.
Mercedes Stephenson: The Australian spy chief came out and gave a really transparent speech about some of what they’ve been doing. The Americans are generally more transparent. There certainly seems to be a push or a hope for that. I don’t know if it’ll work in Canada. But looking forward into what needs to change, you mentioned, Michael, about the nomination process and the in between in elections. I think a lot of viewers hear election interference and what they’re imagining is direct attempts to influence voters, or to change a vote versus to place people before an election happens, or to put people in rooms that can overhear things or influence things. It’s a tough thing to root out, but there are some things the government could do from the public inquiry to try to get to the bottom of some of this, to foreign influence laws or foreign agents registry, having been in a position where you could see this kind of intelligence and how government works. What do you think needs to happen?
Michael Wernick, Former Clerk of the Privy Council: Well we’re having a debate about whether to have an inquiry or retrospective exercise. I would not have it only about China and I wouldn’t have it only about elections. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it properly and cover the whole spectrum of potential interference. My point on the inquiry is we don’t have to wait a year and a half for its findings. I can tell you the findings already. It will recommend that we take the Australian and UK models of foreign interference legislation and registration and bring them to Canada. So there’s nothing stopping our politicians from working on that legislation in parallel. The government could commit to table a bill like that before the summer break and our politicians could debate it, amend it and make it better, and pass it by the end of the year.
Artur Wilczynski, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Communications Security Establishment: I also think that transparency through that kind of process is important to make it a systemic approach for our security intelligence agencies as well. I think having a conversation about the role of intelligence in the middle of a crisis is not a productive or informed conversation. I think that the kind of exercise that could be a little bit more deliberative, that makes concrete recommendations and that at the end of the day, security intelligence agencies in Canada are more transparent with what they do, how they do it, why they do it. I think will provide Canadians with the confidence they need, that our organizations are there to protect them and to protect Canadian democracies so that people know that when they do go into the ballot booth that the—that their vote is free and fair, and that they can have confidence that the systems of our democracy are there in their interests.
Mercedes Stephenson: Michael and Artur, thank you both very much for joining us today. A really interesting conversation and we look forward to speaking to you both again soon.
Michael Wernick, Former Clerk of the Privy Council: Thanks for asking us.
Artur Wilczynski, Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Communications Security Establishment: Thank you.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the Opposition is calling for a public inquiry. How will allegations of China’s medaling play out when the House resumes?
Mercedes Stephenson: MPs are back in Ottawa tomorrow after a two week break and you can expect the prime minister will be facing opposition questions about how his government has responded to foreign interference allegations in the last two federal elections.
Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre says Justin Trudeau should call a public inquiry.
Pierre Poilievre, Opposition Leader: “We can’t simply bury it behind closed doors and have it in secret, while Canadians are left in the dark, potentially with another election interfered in before the results of the commission come out. The results of the commission and the regular testimony must be public.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Justin Trudeau has resisted calls for an inquiry saying his government is taking the issue seriously.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We have—the process that we put in place that is professional, independent people, working with the public service, to make sure thresholds are met.”
Mercedes Stephenson: To talk about all of this, I’m joined by our inside politics panel. Bob Fife is the Ottawa bureau chief with The Globe and Mail; and Stephanie Levitz is with The Toronto Star.
A big week on the foreign interference and China file. Steph, how do you think the Liberals have handled this?
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: You know Justin Trudeau has ducked more questions than there have been spy balloons shot down by NORAD over this one, really. And…
Mercedes Stephenson: That’s saying something.
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: And that is saying something, because he’s been asked numerous times, over numerous days, to explain himself. To talk about how much information he had, to defend specific MPs that have been accused of being directly influenced, by name, by the Chinese state and he ducks every time, which leads us to wonder why can’t Canadians have more information from the prime minister. And I note that it’s interesting because he doesn’t even trot out the national security line, like I can’t comment because it’s a matter of national security. He just ducks and weaves and bobs around it. And that is adding—increasing fuel, I think, to the political fire around this because perhaps with some measure of additional transparency, we could get some answers and that could see some of the pressure fall off.
Mercedes Stephenson: Bob, why do you think they won’t provide these basic answers? We’ve asked multiple times about what he knew what allegations against a Liberal MP? That Liberal MP denies those allegations, but the prime minister won’t confirm or deny whether or not he knew about those allegations and if he didn’t, you know, it would be beneficial for him maybe to say he didn’t. But maybe that throws staff under the bus. I mean, what’s the calculation here?
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: And he’s been all over the map. When these stories started to come out, based on CSIS documents by the way, he said his first thing was CSIS hunt down these people. Not that I—not saying I should be—we should really be concerned about it. Hunt down these people who are leaking this sort of stuff. And then he said well there’s nothing to see here because we’ve always mentioned before that there has been interference in election campaigns. And then he said oh, the political parties are being partisan and they’re undermining democracy. And then when you did—Global did the story about Liberal MP Han Dan, he resorted to racism that this is racism by doing this. And now—and now he’s saying that there’s—there’s absolutely no—he’s resisting efforts for a national—a public inquiry, which there should be because if you have a judge who holds public inquiry, he can see the secret documents behind closed doors. He can have subpoena powers to call CSIS officers, or any national security person, or the cabinet ministers. And the best part about it—some of it will be in public, some won’t be—the best part about it is we’ll get recommendations to make sure this doesn’t happen before the next election campaign because it is a very serious issue.
Mercedes Stephenson: Stephanie, do you think they’re going to bow to the pressure for a public inquiry on this?
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: It depends on how much pressure the Opposition is willing to place, really. I mean, this is a minority Parliament. The Opposition, yes they moved a motion and voted a motion at committee that there ought to be a public inquiry. That is not a binding motion on the government. Fair enough. However, they are the Opposition of Parliament. If they would like—I mean the opposition, you know, parties. If they would like to hijack the government’s agenda, if they would like to hold the government’s feet to the fire, I don’t know, refuse to vote on things, filibuster at committee. They’ve got lots of little tools at their disposal. They could needle away at the prime minister on this one until he bows and does something about it. And I think that there probably are signs within, you know, the PMO and elsewhere that are starting to emerge that they are sensitive to the notion that the trust in government, which was already fragile to begin with—let us not forget, right—is being undermined by this. Not necessarily there is the issue, of course, of foreign states undermining confidence, but there is the public trust in government. And the public trust in government is sacrosanct here. This is about elections. This is about democracy. And if Trudeau is serious in saying all the things that he said, they have to be thinking a little bit about is there some other layer they can put on here that restores public trust to have people believe in what they’re saying, which is the don’t worry, we’re on top of it. We know this is happening and we’re working on it.
Mercedes Stephenson: Bob, where do you see it going?
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well, look, right now it’s—their—the wagon’s around—they’ve put the wagons around their prime minister. They don’t know—really know how to respond to this, but there are some simple things that they can do. One, hold a national—a public inquiry. Get a respected judge, somebody that all the opposition parties will agree to. Bring in a foreign agent registry, which is the Australians and the United States have, which means that lobbyists and former politicians and lawyers who—or people who work in the media who may be being paid by the Chinese state or Chinese state enterprises, you will know who they are. Then you have to change the CSIS Act so that CSIS can be far more out—outgoing about warning the public about issues like foreign interference. And thirdly, change the criminal code to make foreign interference a criminal violation. Those are solutions that lots of people who are security experts as you know, have advocated for this and they do not want to do it. And the opposition keeps saying you know they don’t want to do it? Because those document show that China favoured a Liberal minority government and they wanted to defeat Conservative MPs.
Mercedes Stephenson: Steph, one of the things that I keep hearing is, and we know from Bob’s reporting about the allegations that the, you know, Chinese diplomatic was bragging about trying to influence so there would be a Liberal minority government. I’ve heard from some Conservatives as well that they’re getting pressure to stop talking about China. They were late to the public inquiry cal. It was the NDP who put it out there first. And what some of these political insiders say is look, there is foreign interference from more than just China. There’s from other countries as well. And so there’s resistance form the two main political parties to make changes because right now they’re basically run as private clubs. I don’t mean that as an insult. They’re literally run as private clubs, and the nomination process and a lot of the stuff that goes on where you can get involved and manipulate behind the scenes, they don’t want anybody looking at it. Do you think there’s political will to create not just transparency from the intelligence agencies which we absolutely seem to need more of but also accountability for the parties in this?
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: No. I mean, I think political parties, like you say, they’re a closed shop. I mean, just think about on the surface of it. They’re not subject to access to information regulation. They hold a bunch of data about people and they don’t have to tell anybody what it is. Their financials, you know, are transparent to a point, but generally pretty opaque. I mean, I think with the Conservatives, what they’re sensitive to, and this dates back some years now, is that the stance that they’ve taken on China, has alienated voters. And they know it. They’ve heard it. They’ve been told it. It’s beyond sort of the second, you know, the piece of Chinese interference perhaps costing them votes. They themselves are costing themselves votes and they don’t know how to square that circle. How do they adopt a foreign policy line that might be in line with Conservative ideology as it relates to China but not alienating voters in the process? And that’s the thing they’re struggling with. But the interesting thing about nomination contest, you know, I think we all know, right? These are really hard fought, often. Right? This is where the grassroots, the grind of politics really happens and you would think to some degree that folks would be really on guard there for interference. And so it’s an interesting question about how political parties internally might choose to beef up their own, because that’s a missing bit in all this. You hear some of the questions coming out, right? Where I’m waiting for the political parties to say okay, well here are the things we’ve been doing as political parties, to change our process, to make things easier, to make it more transparent. They’re not doing it. They don’t seem to outwardly be taking this seriously themselves even as they stand in the House of Commons and yell and scream about a public inquiry. I mean, you know, reports recently, some of the political parties even turned down security briefings during the election. So either they’re taking it seriously as a matter of national security, or they’re just using it to be a political football and I don’t think that’s the right approach either.
Mercedes Stephenson: Bob, given what Stephanie just said, the prime minister suggests that this should go before parliamentary committees. A lot of folks would say that’s the right place for it.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Well that’s not the right place…
Mercedes Stephenson: Why not?
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: First of all, because we’ve seen the committee. It—it gets into partisanship, ridiculous questions, the Liberals trying to not provide answers, filibustering. The Conservatives interested in scoring partisan points, not trying to get at the truth. And when we’ve—the CSIS provides document to the committee that they’ve requested are all blank. They don’t talk about what we know are in those documents, which is social—disinformation campaigns that make—that say false things about candidates, cash transfers to candidates, hiring of students—studying here, international students—studying here to help preferred candidates. Tax—people contributing money to parties and then they get repaid back minus the tax receipt that they get from the government. Those are really, really serious issues. You’re not going to get that in a parliamentary inquiry. You will get it in a public inquiry.
Mercedes Stephenson: Really serious issues and we’ll see if those calls for a public inquiry result in one in the coming weeks. Steph and Bob, thanks for joining us.
Robert Fife, The Globe and Mail: Thank you.
Stephanie Levitz, The Toronto Star: Thanks.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, when will Canadians start to see a drop in rising food prices?
Mercedes Stephenson: Now for one last thing, the cost of living is putting pressure on many Canadians who have to make really tough choices about their finances. Interest rates and skyrocketing food prices are two of the biggest factors in Canadians’ budgets right now.
On Wednesday, we’ll find out whether the Bank of Canada will hold its 4.5 per cent interest rate. And that very same day, the presidents and CEOs of the biggest grocery chains in Canada like Loblaws and Metro, are going to be in the hot seat at parliamentary committee, answering questions over whether their inflating grocery prices. It’s a rare week when politics and your pocketbook will line up.
That’s our show for today. We’ll see you next Sunday on The West Block. Thanks for hanging out with us.