Foreign interference: CSIS told B.C. premier it can’t share intelligence, documents show

British Columbia Premier Premier David Eby in Delta, B.C., April 27, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Canada’s intelligence service told B.C. Premier David Eby during a briefing on Chinese foreign interference in March that it could not share secret information, according to notes of the meeting obtained by Global News.

The hour-long March 28 meeting between the premier and the regional director general of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service followed a news report alleging China had meddled in Vancouver’s 2022 mayoral election.

The notes of the meeting show that while the premier wanted to know more so his government could respond with policies and legislation, the CSIS official explained his agency reported only to “one client”: the federal government.

Otherwise, CSIS was prohibited by law from disclosing classified intelligence, the official said. “The province doesn’t know what the province doesn’t know,” the official added, according to notes taken by the premier’s staff.

The meeting highlighted what some see as a critical weakness in Canada’s fight against foreign interference: although provincial and municipal governments are key targets of China, they are not in the intelligence loop.

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Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protester holds a sign in front of pro-China counter-protesters in Vancouver, Aug. 17, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

With their control of strategic natural resources and significant Chinese Canadian communities, B.C. and Ontario in particular are at the front lines of China’s efforts to remake Canada as a more pro-Beijing dominion.

But as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s special rapporteur on foreign interference, David Johnston, wrote in his first report, the provinces do not receive classified intelligence.

“Intelligence about foreign interference is gathered at the federal level and disseminated at the federal level, but is not disseminated to provincial or lower levels of government,” he wrote.

He called for the gap to be “robustly addressed” because Canada’s adversaries recognized that politicians outside Ottawa had significant powers and climbed from provincial and local government to federal politics.

Johnston’s report was controversial due to his long-standing relationship with the Trudeau family and his resignation in June, but his view is in line with experts who spoke to Global News.

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The CSIS meeting

At his meeting with the CSIS official, Eby raised the lack of intelligence sharing, according to the notes. He said one of the top “challenges” was that “you may get info” about B.C. elections.

Another concern was money service businesses, which have been widely linked to money laundering in the province. “Everyone knew except us. How do we id. that info so we can act on it?”

He said he needed information so the province could respond to threats.

“How do we find out what type of info you’re sharing and what tools we need to address it,” according to the hand-written notes, released under B.C.’s freedom of information law.

RCMP visited the Wenzhou Friendship Society in Richmond, B.C., last December as part of an investigation into the Chinese government’s foreign interference campaign. Stewart Bell/Global News

The notes quoted the CSIS official as having said the agency was “figuring out a mechanism” for having national security conversations with “a well-placed individual or team in B.C.”

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He told the premier that Ontario had a provincial security advisor’s office that worked with federal agencies on national security issues. Eby’s office did not respond when asked whether one was being considered for B.C.

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The premier said he would “designate someone on our side,” and asked to meet CSIS director David Vigneault. The CSIS official responded that the director “will come out and speak to you,” but his answers “won’t be different.”

CSIS Act needs to change, expert says

In a statement to Global News, CSIS said that although it was not authorized to disclose classified intelligence outside the government of Canada, it was trying to help politicians at other levels defend against foreign interference.

“We have provided personal security briefings and general threat briefings to elected officials across Canada and in 2022 alone, CSIS briefed 26 elected provincial officials about the foreign interference threat,” said spokesperson Lindsay Sloane.

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NDP MP Jenny Kwan speaks to reporters about her briefing with CSIS, where she was told she was a target of foreign interference, May 29, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang. JDT

But Prof. Dennis Molinaro, an intelligence expert at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, said briefings can be vague and give advice on only general or broad threats.

“Sometimes they may offer some specifics but no details, which doesn’t really help the receiver of the information decide what they need to do to mitigate a threat,” Molinaro said.

Currently, intelligence can be shared only with federal or law enforcement agencies, he said, adding that the CSIS Act needed to be amended so the intelligence service could share what it knows more broadly.

The provinces will also have to make changes. If they haven’t already done so, they will need to build secure communications systems so they can receive classified intelligence.

Until then, without knowing specifics, provincial politicians may struggle to understand how China is attempting to manipulate Canada to its advantage, and what they should do about it.

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They may also not take CSIS warnings as seriously as they might, were they better informed.

Are “people working for you or against you,” the notes of Eby’s meeting with the CSIS official recorded the premier as saying, under the heading Politician. “Most don’t know.”

Click to play video: 'RCMP confirms more than 100 foreign interference inquiries, including threats of elected officials'
RCMP confirms more than 100 foreign interference inquiries, including threats of elected officials

Asked about the matter, Eby said in a statement to Global News: “I appreciate the discussion that I had with the regional director of CSIS where I was able to express the obvious need for the provincial government to receive important and relevant information regarding events taking place in our province.”

“I look forward to the federal government considering an approach that can achieve this while maintaining the confidentiality of intelligence-based materials.”

Provincial governments are targets

While federal elections have dominated the recent debate over foreign interference, provincial and local officials have also found themselves in the crosshairs of the Chinese Communist Party.

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Politicians from all levels of government have been spotted at events hosted by organizations suspected of fronting for Beijing, including some linked to the so-called police stations China operated in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

In Ontario, MPP Vincent Ke resigned from the Conservative caucus on March 10 after Global News reported he was part of an attempt to interfere in the 2019 federal elections — an allegation he denied.
In Ontario, MPP Vincent Ke resigned from the Conservative caucus on March 10 after Global News reported he was part of an attempt to interfere in the 2019 federal elections — an allegation he denied. CC Media News

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said CSIS briefed his office about the matter but that the agency was “very secretive” and “they don’t give you a proper briefing in my opinion.”

“With CSIS, everything’s a big secret,” he said.

Deputy Markham Mayor Michael Chan’s meetings with Chinese officials have also caught the attention of CSIS, Global News and the Globe and Mail have reported.

The former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister and federal Liberal fundraiser has denied any wrongdoing and is suing CSIS and two reporters, alleging he is a victim of racism.

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B.C.’s ‘outsized’ relationship with China

B.C. is likewise considered vulnerable to foreign interference, owing partly to what a de-classified document released by the province called its “outsized relationship with China compared to other provinces.”

The document, “BC Engagement with China and Taiwan,” noted that the province had a significant volume of exports as well as “diverse Chinese diaspora communities (over 500,000).”

The province also has strong ties with Taiwan, with 43 per cent of Canada’s exports to the island nation originating in B.C., making it the province’s sixth largest export market, the document said.

China considers Taiwan to be a breakaway republic and wants to bring it under Beijing’s control. Pushing that view outside China is one of the goals of the PRC’s foreign interference campaign.

Click to play video: 'MP Michael Chong testifies on allegations China targeted family, was unaware until news report'
MP Michael Chong testifies on allegations China targeted family, was unaware until news report

Premier Eby met with CSIS after the Globe and Mail reported on March 16 that a Chinese diplomat based in Vancouver had tried to sway the city’s 2022 municipal election.

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The newspaper article was sourced to a CSIS report that reportedly said the then-consul general, Tong Xiaoling, had groomed Beijing-friendly Chinese Canadians to run for office in Vancouver.

On the day the article was published, B.C. Deputy Solicitor General Douglas Scott wrote in an email that the issue was “not naturally part of our mandate, however, we are looking into it.”

“Further to this,” he added two hours later, “the director of policing will be in touch with the BC RCMP commander and let him know this issue is of real concern to the province.”

He said “our team” would meet with CSIS to “relay the same message.”

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