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The first step for Canada in fighting foreign interference? Defining what it is


Canada doesn’t have a legal definition for foreign interference, pushing the authorities to find other crimes committed by malign foreign actors if they want to prosecute them, a national security expert said in the wake of a week-long controversy about an alleged campaign by the Chinese government to intimidate a Canadian MP.

Conservative MP Michael Chong confirmed this week that Canada’s intelligence services believe his family in Hong Kong was the target of an intimidation campaign after he sponsored a motion declaring that China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region constitutes genocide.

The revelation sparked a week of confusion in Ottawa, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau initially vowing to get to the bottom of it, and then blaming the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for not flagging this information for the government. By Thursday, Chong said the government admitted to him that the intelligence document about the alleged intimidation campaign had made its way to several ministries and the Privy Council Office.

National security experts say Canada is lagging behind its allies in its capacity to discover and deter these kinds of foreign interference activities.

“Canada needs to do what the Australians did and establish what constitutes foreign interference. The problem right now for investigations is without a clear definition of the thresholds, they need to find other transgressions that are actually illegal,” said Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University and a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.

“The threshold right now for an investigation is very high,” said Leuprecht.

Without it being delineated in law, there can be uncertainty within the intelligence agencies about their ability to act.

“We have nothing in legislation that would actually define at which point agencies are authorised to step in,” said Leuprecht.

Since it was revealed in a Globe and Mail news story on Monday, the alleged intimidation of Chong’s extended family in Hong Kong has dominated debate in the House of Commons. It culminated on Thursday when Chong led question period for the Conservatives and revealed that Jody Thomas, the national security advisor to the prime minister, revealed to him that the 2021 intelligence report about his family had been widely disseminated in the government, contradicting Trudeau’s comments from a day earlier.

On Monday, the Conservatives will reveal an opposition motion calling on the government to create a foreign agents registry similar to the one in Australia. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre will also call on the government to launch a public inquiry on foreign interference in Canada’s election, close down two police stations in Canada run by the Chinese government, and expel any diplomats involved in any of these activities.

Leuprecht said that Canada can learn a few things from Australia, especially when it comes to letting CSIS be proactive in stopping these interference campaigns. In a situation where a hostile foreign government is trying to fund a certain candidate, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service has a mandate to act.

“ASIS regularly uses its disruption measures. So it would, for instance, have an opportunity to disrupt the flow of those funds, seize bank accounts, stop the flow of money, whatever it may be. There are no such authorities in Canada. So CSIS can watch and report, but there’s nothing it can do about it,” said Leuprecht.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said he will begin public consultations on a foreign agent registry soon and his department published a whitepaper earlier in the year exploring the idea.

The Australian example, which has been widely touted by the Conservative Party and national security experts as a model, has been getting mixed reviews lately, with even some of its early proponents saying it has some major flaws.

Malcolm Turnbull, who was Australian prime minister when the registry was launched, said the registry is simultaneously hoovering up information “of marginal utility” while missing some fairly obvious interference from the Chinese government.

“A lot of the information and relationships being reported are so benign as to be barely worth doing,” said Turnbull, earlier this year, to an Australian parliamentary committee examining the registry.

“Yet if you believe the register, there is not one representative of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department operating in Australia. That defies credulity,” said Turnbull.

A recent policy paper by Daniel Ward, an Australian lawyer who has advised two prime ministers on the issue, said the main issue with the registry is that “it treats all foreign influence efforts in the same way, regardless of their source country.”

Ward recommends sorting countries into tiers and applying more or less scrutiny and regulations based on their track record.

“Designation would be based primarily upon an assessment of the foreign state’s political system—in particular, the degree to which the foreign government controls ostensibly ‘private’ entities and deploys them to advance its national security goals,” writes Ward.

Clare O’Neil, the minister for home affairs in Australia, said in a speech earlier this year that diaspora communities are desperate for government support to combat these interference campaigns.

Only with supporting Australian citizens, the best way to deter these campaigns is to reveal them and “out” countries that are engaging them, she said.

“We don’t want to just disrupt these operations, but we want to deter future ones by imposing costs on their sponsors by outing them, where it is possible to do so,” said O’Neil.

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


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.