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The Bureau: filling in Canada’s intelligence reporting gap

News

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

This month, dozens of politicians, lawyers, intelligence experts, and immigrant diaspora groups descended on Ottawa for another week of the federal government’s inquiry into foreign interference in Canada’s elections and democratic institutions.

It could be powerfully argued that if it wasn’t for journalist Sam Cooper’s reporting, which exposed much of this interference, the inquiry would not be happening at all, and foreign actors hellbent on influencing Canadians would still be hard at work, their pursuits uninterrupted.

It was Sam Cooper who investigated and wrote several breaking stories for Global News about China’s foreign interference in Canadian elections—stories that led to months of allegations of political scandal and serious fallout for the federal Liberal government, which appeared to be the main beneficiary of the interference. These stories included Cooper’s reporting that a Liberal MP privately advised a senior Chinese diplomat that his government should hold off releasing imprisoned Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, that Prime Minister Trudeau was briefed about election interference repeatedly, and his reporting that an Ontario PC MPP was part of an election interference network led by China’s Toronto consulate.

Riding the tsunami wave of these exclusives Cooper left Global to found The Bureau, an online news outlet focussing on domestic and international intelligence stories, which he launched on Substack in June last year. Since then, the new media outlet has been making a name for itself among fans of long-form, hard-hitting investigative journalism.

Consider, for example, the exclusive story The Bureau published last week, under the headline “’Fake Chinese income’ mortgages fuel Toronto Real Estate Bubble: HSBC Bank Leaks.” The story contained details of fraudulent loans doled out by the banking giant to members of the Chinese diaspora to help them purchase expensive homes in Toronto, Vancouver, and other Canadian cities. It’s already had 152,000 people read it.

“I’d never seen leaks or disclosures of this kind from a big bank in Canada,” Cooper confessed to The Hub in an interview.

This is exactly the kind of hard-hitting reporting from unique sources that Cooper, through The Bureau, wants to add to Canada’s shifting media landscape.

The book that helped inspire The Bureau

The idea of starting his own investigative outlet came to Cooper following the release of his book Wilful Blindness: How a Network of Narcos, Tycoons and CCP Agents Infiltrated the West. Reflecting the themes of his reporting, the book details how money laundering, real estate, and Chinese Communist Party operatives in Canada intersect, and the many ways in which our country’s national security has been compromised as a result. Published in 2021, Wilful Blindness debuted at number one on Amazon and became a bestseller.

Nearly three years later, the book sits in the eighth spot on Amazon’s best-seller list for the Organized Crime Biography category. It’s been a remarkable run and made Cooper ultimately realize that this brand of investigative journalism could be the basis of a viable business model.

“I knew that I could launch a digital media platform where I could write in the same detailed and in-depth way,” says Cooper. “I decided I was at a point in my career, along with some success writing a book and entrepreneurial success, that it was time to take a leap of faith and start The Bureau.”

And so, the investigative reporter left Global News, a well-known mainstream media outlet, and jumped into the online entrepreneurial abyss.

Investigative reporting is an attractive niche

It is a challenging time to be starting a new media outlet, let alone when you’re just one guy. In June 2023, Corus Entertainment—the parent company of Cooper’s former employer Global News—laid off almost 10 percent of its employees. Just last week, BCE Inc, the parent company of CTV News, announced it would be cutting nearly 10 percent of its own workforce (5,000 positions) selling 45 of its radio stations, and ending numerous TV newscasts outside of Toronto. It didn’t matter that many of these journalists had impressive source Rolodexes or had broken big stories, they were losing their jobs.

Cooper believes that to be successful, newer and smaller media outlets must have a niche.

 “As the world’s advertising-supported media model collapses, we need journalists that can be independent leaders in what they’re best at,” says Cooper. The journalist adds that his growing readership is intrigued by his reporting beats, which include systemic corruption and financial integrity.

Ward Elcock is a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and former deputy minister of defence. He admits that while plenty of online-only Canadian news outlets have sprung up in recent years, few cover corruption and government misconduct like The Bureau.

“There are other publications that cover those things.” “But nobody that particularly specializes in it that I can think of,” he says.

A 2023 report from Statistics Canada suggested that fewer than one-third of Canadians had a good or great deal of confidence in Parliament as a public institution.

While Elcock says it’s important to have outlets like The Bureau that are willing to dive into government misdeeds the public has come to expect, he stresses that governments often make mistakes, mistakes that shouldn’t always be seen as deliberate misconduct.

“There’s no question that there are things that occasionally get hushed up, there’s no question that people make mistakes, there’s no question that sometimes governments don’t tell the truth,” explains Elcock. “But the idea that it is a perennial problem is one that has taken hold.”

One criticism Cooper has repeatedly faced is that he is merely the go-to outlet for disgruntled intelligence agents who want to anonymously leak their displeasure with the Trudeau government’s lack of action and funding.

Cooper rejects the characterization.

“In Canada, I’m asking for some credibility that people in the intelligence community…have been reaching out to me saying that ‘Canada is a playground for hostile state activity.'” he said in a recent interview on Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast. “And they have trusted me and said, ‘You’re not only going to tell the truth, you’re gonna protect my identity…I do an assessment of the people and why they come forward. If I think they have personal career motivations,…and they’re pissed off and that’s why they’re leaking, I’m not gonna publish.”

Cooper says his sources are in fact diverse and not all from the intelligence community, explaining that he also receives supporting evidence from academics, non-governmental agencies, state records, and diaspora groups targeted by authoritarian governments.

He says he’s been called out by questionable critics as an “agent of intelligence.”

“It’s just part of the threats and harassment that reporters and politicians that scrutinize the Chinese Communist Party face,” Cooper tells The Hub.

Photo Illustration: The Bureau Investigates Toronto Method Mortgage Leaks.
Subscribers have become crucial to The Bureau’s success

While many new media companies have opted for a non-profit or charity model to ensure they stay afloat, The Bureau is a full-fledged business. It is one of a growing number of outlets hosted on Substack, an online newsletter platform that allows people to create an account with no charge.

While many Substacks are personal-interest blogs, the forum can also be an important first step for new journalism publications. When journalist Bari Weiss quit the New York Times in 2020 over what she described as a lack of ideological diversity, she went her own way, creating an account for herself on Substack. Today, she leads a news website called The Free Press and employs a team of journalists.

Still, others languish on the platform, gaining only a limited following. It remains difficult to break through.

Since Cooper left Global News last summer, The Bureau has become his full-time job. While he initially secured enough funding from investors and supporters to help start the publication and keep it afloat for up to two years, he says it’s new subscribers who have been powering the publication towards greater success.

“My plan was to have enough subscriptions to pay myself as in my former media job [salary], and I’m on course for that,” he says. “When I reach that point where I’m getting paid like a Toronto Star or a Globe and Mail reporter, I will say it’s a success for me.”

Subscriptions to The Bureau are $12 per month, or $130 annually. Those willing to pay $405 can become a “Founding Member.” Free subscriptions are also offered, with limited access to content.

Today, The Bureau, which Cooper runs by himself out of Ottawa, has amassed more than 7,000 followers since 2023. For comparison, another Canadian outlet on Substack, The Line, which offers political commentary and has two journalists running it, has garnered more than 20,000 subscribers (that’s paid and non-paying) since its founding in 2020.

For Cooper, creating a strong subscriber base is just the first step in the site’s development.

“Right now, I’m solidly in the middle of phase one, which is to build up subscriptions to the point where it’s very viable and profitable,” says Cooper.

Attracting top talent is Cooper’s next goal

The second stage of The Bureau’s development will focus on bringing in new talent, both in Canada and abroad. Eventually, Cooper would like to have 10 international writers contributing to the publication.

“I’m trying to build it out and bring other unique writers into The Bureau as contributors in sort of a decentralized…journalism media brand,” says Cooper. He adds that he expects the new additions to be mature and unique writers who will support and peer-review or edit one another.

Since its launch last summer, The Bureau has attracted talent such as National Post columnist Adam Zivo, who wrote a critique of “safe supply” programs in British Columbia. At the moment, however, Cooper still writes the vast majority of the stories published.

Amidst the changing media landscape, Cooper is excited by the success The Bureau has had so far. He says he’s confident there will always be an appetite for hard-hitting, investigative journalism.

“It’s always been a challenging time for the media, ever since I’ve come into it, but it’s also an exciting time right now,” explains Cooper. “I was taking somewhat of a leap of faith and I was calculating that there was a market for this, and I can say, 100 percent, there is a market and there is hope in the media.”

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.

Were Premier Smith’s gender and sexuality policies fair, or did they go too far?

News

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s announcement that her government would introduce gender and sexuality legislation has set off waves of praise and ignited prairie fires of condemnation. If passed, the legislation would make Alberta the third province to implement a policy around parental rights, with Smith’s plan being the most far-reaching.

Similar to legislation already enacted in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, Alberta’s proposed plan would cover pronoun and name changes. But Smith’s plan would go even further, addressing gender-affirming surgeries, hormone therapy, as well as the participation of trans athletes in sports. 

In the video announcement, Smith made efforts to communicate that she was not questioning the legitimacy of a trans person’s gender identity and that the province would support them.  

“In the case of persons aged 17 and under who identify as transgender, I always want you to know that you are loved and supported as you work your way through your often changing emotions, feelings, and beliefs,” said Smith. She added that the Alberta government is seeking to attract transgender surgery specialists to ensure that the health-care needs of the transgender community are met. 

One perspective not often heard is the reaction from trans members of Premier Smith’s own party. Blaine Badiuk is a United Conservative Party (UCP) member, a former student teacher, and a trans woman. She said she has mixed feelings about the announcement and is unsure if it struck the right balance. 

“Part of this is playing politics, like the ban on surgeries. It is already in practice, but [it’s] an easy win for the base,” says Badiuk. “I do genuinely believe Smith wants to get this right. I am hopeful that some concerns can be addressed through the implementation piece. Broad policies are one thing, but the actual details are another.”

The proposal bans gender-affirming surgery for Alberta children aged 15 and younger, as well as top and bottom surgery for kids under 17. However, the policy appears to be redundant, as according to Alberta law, you must already be 18 to have top or bottom surgery.

The proposed legislation: a breakdown

Outside of surgery, Alberta’s legislation would require parental consent for a child, under the age of 16, to change their pronoun or name at an Albertan school. If the child is over 16, the parents must only be notified. 

Hormone therapy and puberty blockers would be prohibited for children aged 15 and under unless they have already begun the process. Youths aged 16 and 17 would be permitted to undergo hormone therapy with approval from their parents, physicians, and psychologists if deemed mature enough. 

When it comes to schooling, parents would need to be notified and provide consent for their child to receive in-classroom instruction on sexual orientation, gender identity, and human sexuality. Prior approval from Alberta’s education ministry would be required for the use of third-party materials for these subjects from kindergarten through grade 12.

The provincial government would also take steps to ensure transgender female athletes do not compete against cisgender women and girls. Transgender athletes would be allowed to participate in expanded co-ed or gender-neutral leagues. 

Does the legislation go too far?

Some liked what they saw. Michael Zwaagstra, a public high school teacher and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, believes Smith’s announcement was very reasonable.

“I think that the requirement that students must be at least 16 before they can change their names or pronouns without parental consent recognizes that 16 is an age where mature minors have considerable autonomy,” says Zwaagstra. “What I see from these guidelines is a recognition that mature minors have considerable autonomy, but this autonomy is not absolute.”

Zwaagstra says he believes Smith did make a genuine effort to create a balanced policy, but the polarizing nature of the issue remains a challenge.

Badiuk says the proposed new laws regarding the participation of trans women in sports leagues, especially in co-ed and gender-neutral leagues, seem reasonable. But she believes refusing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to kids under 16 is an overreach.

“Why are we saying that if a doctor, psychologist, parent, and teenager all consent to having HRT at age 12 or 14, the government should be stepping in and making a medical decision for you?” asks Badiuk. “It goes entirely against any idea of ‘parental rights’ or medical autonomy.” 

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith answers questions at a news conference in Calgary on Thursday, February 1, 2024. Todd Korol/The Canadian Press.

Others, including on the other side of the political spectrum, concur. Kristopher Wells is an associate professor in the Department of Child and Youth Care at MacEwan University in Edmonton. The Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth agrees the legislation goes against the UCP’s principles of smaller government and enhanced individual freedom.

“These kinds of policies certainly limit freedom and restrict access to important medical care,” insists Wells. “So it is a bit ironic for a party that claims to be about expanding the space of freedom to be restricting it against a very vulnerable group of young people.”

Different provinces, different rights 

Many have noted that the proposed legislation goes further than the parental rights policies enacted by other provincial governments; with Saskatchewan being the next most extensive, followed by New Brunswick.

Zwaagstra, for example, points out a key difference between Smith’s proposal and the legislation brought in by New Brunswick in 2023. 

“The main difference is that while parental consent for name and pronoun changes is not required in Alberta for students above the age of 16 [and 17], parents must still be notified,” he says. “In contrast, New Brunswick does not have a notification requirement for students above the age of 16.” 

For Badiuk, there are still blanks to be filled in Alberta. If students aren’t sure how to talk to their parents about these issues, she would like to see the legislation offer a pathway to support. Furthermore, in cases where such a discussion might become unsafe for a child, she calls for resources to be provided so that alternatives can be explored.

“The challenge is that this issue has become very polarized.”

In fact, this is the route that New Brunswick has taken. Following consultations, the government clarified that “If it is not in the best interest of the child or could cause harm to the student (physical or mental threat), the student will be directed to the appropriate school professional for support.”

Wells looks east to neighbouring Saskatchewan and points to the differences between that province’s policies and Alberta’s. In Saskatchewan, a student wanting to change their name, gender identity, or gender expression only needs parental or guardian consent if the child is under 16. If they are 16 or older, they do not need permission.

“The policies that Danielle Smith has introduced are much more draconian and far-reaching and will have a significant and damaging impact on the lives of trans, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the province,” says Wells whose comments are reflective of a common line of criticism from the government’s most vociferous critics.

Debate likely to play out in courts and among the public

Wells adds that legal challenges to these types of legislation are almost certain. 

“They violate the Alberta Human Rights Act and violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he says. “And as we’ve seen already, several groups have announced their intention to file legal challenges against the government, should these policies be enacted.” 

Egale Canada, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, has already started plans to mount a legal challenge against Alberta’s parental rights legislation. Last year, the organization launched another legal challenge against the Saskatchewan government after it passed its own parental rights bill. 

After the Saskatchewan government passed parental rights legislation in 2023, a court injunction temporarily halted the policy’s implementation pending a constitutional assessment. Premier Scott Moe then used the constitutional provision of the notwithstanding clause to cement the policy. 

The notwithstanding clause, when invoked, allows governments to override certain constitutional rights for up to five years, thus permitting the policy’s enforcement despite potential constitutional concerns.

Zwaagstra believes Smith, like Moe, would be absolutely justified in employing the notwithstanding clause in the case of a Charter challenge to Alberta’s parental rights legislation. 

“The notwithstanding clause is just as legitimate a part of the Charter as any other section,” says Zwaagstra. “When it comes to contentious social policy, it makes sense for elected legislators rather than appointed judges to have the final say.”

New Brunswick has not invoked the notwithstanding clause over their gender and sexuality legislation.

Protesters from the ‘1MillionMarch4Children’ march near the grounds of Queen’s Park in Toronto, on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press.

Zwaagstra adds that the parental rights policies are merely expressing the opinions of most Canadians. He believes the public outcry over the proposed legislation—such as the recent protests in Ottawa—is actually evidence of a divide between the federal and provincial governments. 

“I think the backlash is more about an ideological divide between a federal Liberal government and a provincial Conservative government,” says Zwaagstra. “It’s also important to remember that opinion polls show that parental rights proposals are popular in all parts of Canada, not just the West.”

Surveys from last summer—after New Brunswick implemented its parental rights legislation— suggested a majority of Canadians support these gender and pronoun policies to varying degrees. Only 14 percent of those surveyed by Angus Reid said parents should neither be informed nor have a say in a child’s gender and pronoun changes. 

In the face of these ongoing surveys, protests and constitutional challenges, Badiuk cautions that it is a mistake to turn parental rights into a black and white debate.

“That is where we need to step in. I think the debate misses the mark in that, on one side, you have them saying parents have absolute rights no matter what,” says Badiuk. “And the other side simply presumes every parent is bad. Neither is the reality. There is a nuance in this, and I think we need to restore humanity in this discussion and remember [that] these are kids’ lives we are talking about.”