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‘We’ve become a playground for authoritarian states’: Canada needs to make foreign interference a high-risk activity, experts say

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It’s too easy for hostile foreign powers to interfere in Canadian democracy with few consequences, national security experts said in the wake of revelations that China had targeted for intimidation the extended family of a member of Parliament.

Conservative MP Michael Chong said he was never informed of the attempt to intimidate his family in Hong Kong despite a Globe and Mail report this week that a top-secret intelligence report detailing the effort was written nearly two years ago.

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre said in question period on Tuesday that the Chinese diplomat allegedly involved in the attempted intimidation still retains his diplomatic accreditation and immunity.

“Why is (the prime minister) keeping this agent in our country threatening our people?” said Poilievre.

Chong confirmed to the House of Commons on Tuesday that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service believes his family was targeted after Chong co-sponsored a motion condemning human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region.

If there are no consequences to this type of activity it’s certain to continue, national security experts said on Tuesday.

“This has to be extremely high-risk behaviour in Canada. And if it isn’t, then you will continue to see this type of exploitative activity right here on our soil,” said Andrew House, who served from 2010 to 2015 as chief of staff to successive ministers of public safety in the Harper government.

House quoted a line from the intelligence document reported on by the Globe: “Threat actors almost certainly perceive their activities in Canada to be low risk and high reward.”

“That ratio has to change,” he said, with the first step being expulsion for anyone who was involved in this kind of activity.

“If there’s any actionable intelligence that the diplomat in question was involved in an influence operation, or an attempt to intimidate a public office holder, leaving the country is the first order of business,” said House.

House said that would “send a strong and basic message that this type of thing simply will not be tolerated in Canada.”

In an interview with The Hub, Chong said that foreign actors believe they have free rein in Canada.

“We’ve become a playground for authoritarian states to coerce our citizens here and undermine our foreign policy, undermine our position in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, undermine our position in NATO by using this these coercive tactic tactics here on Canadian soil,” said Chong

“This inability of the government to tackle foreign interference threat activities here really is a serious national threat,” said Chong.

It’s up to governments to communicate what they consider unacceptable behaviour, said Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University and a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.

“We need to send clear signals about unacceptable behaviour, just like we do when it comes to foreign policy by bad actors,” said Leuprecht. “There needs to be consequences that are commensurate with the level and severity of the transgression.”

In the wake of news about Chinese interference in the Canadian election, some experts have suggested that Canada build a foreign agent registry, which the government is currently considering, and which is already in use in the United States.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during question period on Monday that these kinds of tactics are unacceptable and that his office is looking into it.

National security experts said that it’s highly unusual for incendiary information like this to slip through the cracks between the government’s top-ranking political staff and CSIS, which gathers intelligence.

“It is probable that someone at the political level would have been aware,” said House.

“Somebody, somewhere in the system, of a sufficient level of seniority was aware that it was Michael Chong who was being targeted and his family abroad, and ought to have done something about this,” said House.

On Tuesday, Trudeau strenuously denied that his government sat on the intelligence report about Chong and accused the opposition of political cynicism for suggesting that it did.

“To suggest that anyone in this House would see a threat to a colleague and simply sit on it is unworthy of parliamentarians,” said Trudeau on Tuesday.

“I’m incredulous at the response,” said Leuprecht.

“There is no question in my mind, not an inkling of doubt, that the political staff of the minister would have been informed about a member of Parliament and his family possibly coming under duress,” said Leuprecht.

Part of the issue, said Leuprecht, is that CSIS has a mandate to inform about intelligence rather than to give advice, meaning that any warning to Chong would have likely needed approval from political staff in the government.

Chong said that he was receiving briefings from CSIS even while the agency was aware of the campaign against his family and yet he wasn’t told about it.

“CSIS had provided me briefings on foreign interference activities, particularly from the People’s Republic of China. But they never, ever informed me that the Ministry of State Security of the PRC had tasked a senior diplomat out of the consulate in Toronto with targeting my family in Hong Kong. That’s astounding,” said Chong.

No ‘unity of command’ on Arctic security among Western allies: U.S. defence expert

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A top United States defence expert said there’s no coordination between Western allies on defending the Arctic, an issue that will only get worse as the world becomes more geopolitically unstable.

“I feel there is no unity of command or even centralized alliance for Arctic security between Western and allied partners,” said Lieutenant Colonel Wendy Tokach, the U.S. visiting fellow at Queen’s University’s Centre for International and Defence Policy.

This lack of coordination is an ongoing problem among allies regarding the Arctic, and the U.S.-Canada bilateral relationship is no exception.

“Between NATO and NORAD, who both include areas of the Arctic as defensive responsibilities, there’s a lack of synchronization, no common objective or unity of effort,” said Tokach.

In recent alleged leaks from the instant messaging service Discord reported by the Washington Post, Pentagon documents discuss meetings where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told NATO allies that Canada will never meet the organization’s defence spending target of two percent of GDP. The alleged leaks also highlight attempts by Washington to pressure Ottawa to boost its defence spending and military infrastructure and capabilities in the Arctic due to warnings of increased Russian and Chinese assertiveness.

Tokach has also observed this security reality, pointing out that Russia and China have been increasing their traffic and exercises in the Arctic.

The Arctic Council suspended operations in March 2022 amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite resumed cooperation in a limited number of approved projects since June 2022, Russia is still excluded.

Tokach said this has been counterproductive. Russia updated its foreign policy in February 2023 in a way that prioritizes national interests and removes cooperation in the Arctic, further isolating them and making the security environment dire.

Yet as Russia’s military continues to be overextended and depleted in Ukraine, “the Arctic Council could be considered as a means of engaging in search of international cooperation and peace,” said Tokach.

But she warns that war will continue if Western and allied partners “cannot resume communications with Russia.”

In China’s case, despite its observer status in the Arctic Council, Tokach mentioned that China has nonetheless increased activities in the Arctic.

“The intensity of the great power competition with the United States [has increased as well],” said Tokach. This is especially the case in light of the recent surveillance balloon operations earlier this year.

Criticism of Canada’s defence position has been growing. In response to the alleged leaks, Conservative defence critic James Bezan said Canada has been too heavily dependent on the collective security provided by other nations.

“The top-secret Discord leak in the United States showed that the prime minister has no intention of ever meeting our NATO commitment. It showed that many of our allies are frustrated and disappointed by Canada’s response to recent global crises like those in Haiti and Ukraine,” said Bezan, in the House of Commons.

This sentiment is also increasingly coming from the military and political establishment. More than sixty of Canada’s former top security officials, military commanders, politicians and a former chief justice signed an open letter to the federal government imploring them to take the country’s defence and national security more seriously.

A few days after the letter was released, in a meeting with the U.S. and other allies in Germany, Defence Minister Anita Anand announced that Canada will commit another $39 million in weapons and non-lethal military aid in Ukraine, adding to the already more than $1 billion of given military aid since the invasion.

Tokach said the U.S. understands that there might not be much more coming from Canada.

“In reality, as far as capacity, we can’t operate alone. It’s one of those things that we understand that there are some limitations to the equipment and the manning from our Canadian partners,” said Tokach.

Yet despite limitations, Canada and the U.S. have communicated quickly and coordinated well in response to China’s surveillance balloons, said Tokach.

“I think that the partnership between the United States and Canada is very strong,” she said.