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Sarah Teich: Canada’s proposed law to battle foreign interference is a good start but still needs work

Commentary

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Ottawa, April 10, 2024. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

The federal bill aimed at countering the long arm of foreign interference and transnational repression in Canada is strong but not strong enough.

Bill C-70, tabled May 6, proposes various amendments to the CSIS Act, the Security of Information Act, and the Criminal Code. It would also, if passed, enact the long-awaited foreign influence registry, the Foreign Influence Transparency and Accountability Act.

In one crucial area of improvement, it is critical that Canadian authorities communicate with individuals who are targeted by foreign interference and transnational repression. To date, in many instances, this has not happened. A high-profile example of this occurred last year. When news broke that threats had been made against Conservative MP Michael Chong by agents of the Chinese government, it became evident that Canadian authorities had failed to disclose those threats to Chong or his family.

Bill C-70’s amendments to the CSIS Act would allow information to be disclosed if the disclosure “is essential in the public interest” and if “that interest clearly outweighs any invasion of privacy that could result from the disclosure.” The addition of Section 19 (2.1) to the CSIS Act appears to provide an alternative path to disclosure of threats, but only if the information does not contain any personal information of a Canadian or person in Canada, or the name of a Canadian entity or corporation. While disclosure could never be permitted in all instances—Canadian law must always balance privacy rights—it is not clear if these amendments go far enough in striking the proper balance.

On the other hand, the proposed amendments to the Security of Information Act are significant and strong. Under the new Section 20 (1), every person who “at the direction of, for the benefit of or in association with, a foreign entity or a terrorist group, induces or attempts to induce, by intimidation, threat or violence, any person to do anything or to cause anything to be done” could be found to have committed an offence.

Section 20 (2) broadens the extraterritorial application of this offence, and sections 20.1 (1), 20.2 (1), 20.3 (1), and 20.4 (1) create additional offences. Critically, Section 20.4 (1) could help protect vulnerable political processes, such as nomination contests, from foreign interference. Finally, proposed amendments to Section 22 of the Security of Information Act widen the act’s preparatory offences and raise the maximum penalty for their commission.

Further, the enactment of a foreign influence registry would enable greater transparency regarding foreign influence in political and governmental processes. Anyone besides diplomats and other exempted persons who enter an arrangement with a foreign principal would be required to register within 14 days and provide information as to that arrangement.

However, the kind of information that must be registered will be outlined in regulations that have yet to be made. Section 4 of the foreign influence registry act necessarily limits these requirements to political and governmental processes, thereby excluding instances of foreign influence that occur in other realms.

While it is encouraging that a commissioner of foreign influence would be able to conduct investigations and would be given the powers to compel witness attendance and document production, it is likely that enforcement of registration requirements will prove challenging. Foreign interference and transnational repression may be carried out with the involvement of proxies and proxy organizations, and the provision of indirect benefits, which may present challenges in investigations and enforcement.

Bill C-70 is also limited by what it noticeably lacks. Amendments to the Criminal Code are restricted to the sabotage offences, the first offence of which already existed. It does not create a specific foreign interference offence, nor does it create the offence of refugee espionage, which is criminalized in some European countries. Strikingly, Bill C-70 does not propose the addition of a definition of “transnational repression” to the CSIS Act or to any of the other pieces of legislation it proposes to amend or enact.

Overall, Bill C-70 is a good bill, with numerous significant amendments. However, it is not even close to a panacea. Further laws are needed, as well as policies, to ensure that acts of foreign interference and transnational repression are appropriately criminalized, to ensure that law enforcement authorities have the tools and the training to respond to such instances, and to ensure that victims of foreign interference and transnational repression have proper recourse and protection.

J.J. McCullough: How you’re supposed to talk about immigration in Canada—and how Poilievre is poised to capitalize

Commentary

A new Canadian citizen waves a Canada flag during a citizenship ceremony to mark Citizenship Week in Surrey, B.C., May 13, 2024. Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press.

Conventional wisdom on Canadian immigration policy has been shifting so quickly in recent years it can be hard to keep up. Here’s my best attempt at a succinct summary of the narratives that have defined the topic since the mid-2000s or so.

Stephen Harper

During the conservative prime ministership of Stephen Harper (2006-2015), annual immigration rates rose gradually but consistently. His first full year in office welcomed 236,758 new permanent residents; by his last year, that number had risen to 271,845. This had the effect of increasing Canada’s foreign-born population from 20 percent to 22 percent during his tenure.

These numbers both helped nullify immigration as a point of partisan polarization in Canadian elections—given the two main parties shared a common pro-immigration position—and earned the Conservative Party unusual praise from progressives for being less demagogic on the matter than right-wing parties elsewhere in the world. This culminated in a popular cliche during the Harper years that the prime minister’s pro-immigration stance was itself partially responsible for keeping him in power; that his enlightened position on the issue was being rewarded with newfound votes from grateful immigrant communities. Harper himself believed this to be true, but I’ve never seen much hard evidence proving it.

Since conservatives are stereotyped as being good economic stewards, and the Canadian economy performed well relative to peer countries during his rule, another popular bit of Harper-era immigration lore was that his Conservative government had come to understand immigration as a critical component of the country’s economic success. That is, the party was not just pro-immigration for gauzy, sentimental reasons, but flint-eyed, self-interested, capitalistic ones too.

It’s important to note that Harper’s immigration policies were never all that popular with the public. When asked to describe their ideal immigration agenda, polls consistently showed a majority favoring capping or decreasing the overall intake, which was of course the opposite of what Harper did. But it’s also true that the issue was low salience for most voters. Immigration did not poll high as a subject of concern during election campaigns, and since it wasn’t actively debated, feelings were rarely inflamed. It’s likewise worth noting that for all the praise Harper enjoyed as a savvy immigration proponent, the increases he presided over were mostly status quo; immigration to Canada had been rising steadily under prime ministers of both parties following a spike in the mid-1980s.

Justin Trudeau

In my opinion, all of this created a somewhat disingenuous elite narrative that there existed a broad “consensus” around immigration in Canadian society; that Canada’s immigration policies were largely uncontroversial, well-thought-out, economically rational, and indeed, a model for the world. When Justin Trudeau beat Harper in 2015 the “consensus” narrative consolidated further and featured prominently in the flattering stories about Canada-as-liberal-oasis that were briefly in vogue following Donald Trump’s election. Amid “wall-builders, door-slammers and drawbridge-raisers, Canada stands out as a heartening exception,” said The Economist in 2016.

These days, however, Trudeau is no longer popular to like or be seen as liking.

Conservatives are loath to admit this, but the Canadian press is often less liberally biased than just prone to gradually falling out of love with whoever’s in power, and Trudeau—now badly trailing in the polls—is today routinely subject to the same sort of late-regime scorn that Harper was near the end of his. One manifestation has been increasingly hostile columns accusing the prime minister of “breaking Canada’s immigration consensus” with an immigration intake that has gotten so high and so thoughtless it’s become an active provocation to the public.

Examples:

Ottawa’s inaction is fraying the consensus on immigrationGlobe and Mail editorial board, Jan. 13, 2024

Anxiety over the housing shortfall threatens the Canadian consensus on immigration— Aaron Wherry, CBC Jan. 13, 2024

Canada’s unique, decades-old, pro-immigration consensus has been broken.”— Tony Keller, Globe and Mail, Jan. 19, 2024

For decades, there was solid political and social consensus on immigration in Canada. But recently, cracks in that consensus have emerged.— Althia Raj, Toronto Star, Feb. 9, 2024

…with housing and health-care shortages causing pain from coast to coast, it was never a good idea to take Canada’s pro-immigration consensus for granted.— Sabrina Maddeaux, National Post, Jul. 8, 2023

The arguments contained in pieces like these posit that the Trudeau-era hikes to immigration, which have risen from 296,346 new permanent residents in 2016 to 437,539 in 2022 (a nearly 50 percent increase in contrast to Harper’s modest 15 percent) have put enormous strain on endless aspects of Canadian society, including housing, transportation, health care, education, and of course employment. A growing population raises demand for just about everything—less than ideal in a country where a high cost of living has become the defining anxiety.

Second-guessing the economic costs/benefits of immigration has likewise led to increased focus on the kinds of immigrants that Canada is welcoming, which were never quite as “carefully selected” as popular legend held (the fact that Canadian “economic” class immigrants include dependents, for instance, has made it one of Canada’s most persistently deceptive statistics). Skepticism is now openly directed towards the hundreds of thousands of non-permanent foreign students entering Canada every year and the additional hundred thousand or so who come on “temporary foreign worker” visas (a subject of controversy during the Harper years as well). Trudeau has recently pledged to cut both categories—an unprecedented act in the “consensus” era, and evidence of the defensiveness he’s feeling on a file prime ministers are not usually accused of mishandling.

It’s relevant that the negative consequences of immigration that the press now accuses Trudeau of exacerbating mostly centre around the practical concerns that come with growing a mid-sized nation’s population at such a rapid clip (437,539 immigrants in one year is the equivalent of adding “an entire Halifax of newcomers” observed the National Post’s Tristin Hopper). The critique is rarely cultural, except to the extent Canadians are warned that undermining the pro-immigration consensus could increase support for crass, Trump-style politicians.As usual, Quebec exists in a dimension all its own. Crass Trump-style, or even Tucker Carlson-style, politicians thundering about immigration representing an existential threat to the Volkskörper are entirely mainstream there.

Pierre Poilievre

All this puts the Conservatives under Pierre Poilievre in an interesting position. The Canadian press, and thinky class more generally, has created a permission structure for him to run for prime minister on a platform of reducing immigration without fear of being characterized as a racist fearmonger. Polls suggest over 60 percent of Canadians both want and expect him to do this. Yet Poilievre himself has so far avoided articulating the extent to which he agrees; at his tightly scripted rallies he has no standard immigration-related applause line.

It’s possible his party is still captive to the legends of the Harper years—that they believe immigrant voters are “their” constituency to lose, and Conservatives must therefore tread lightly on rhetoric that could be seen as anti-immigrant. Despite a clearly changing tone in media coverage, the party might also simply not trust the press to accurately characterize a restrictionist Conservative immigration plan, and thus feel there’s no PR incentive to spend much time talking about the issue when they’re already enjoying such a solid lead in the polls.

Or, and perhaps most likely, Poilievre simply wants a restrictionist immigration agenda to be something he can roll out at a more politically opportune time—closer to the official fall 2025 election campaign when Canadians will be paying the most attention, and will be most aware of his promises.

Yesterday’s political taboo could be tomorrow’s ace in the hole.

This column originally appeared at J.J. McCullough’s Shortstack.