The timeline for when Canada might have a long-awaited foreign agents registry up and running remains unclear as an MP from a top ally warns his country is seeing “unprecedented levels” of foreign interference by hostile actors, including China and Russia.
After announcing the launch of public consultations for the registry on Friday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino did not say whether he will meet calls from security experts who say Canada could have the measure in place as soon as this summer when pressed by Eric Sorensen on The West Block Sunday.
“We’ve committed to having a very focused conversation around how it is that we want to inform the creation of this foreign registry,” the minister said. “I also want to be sure that we get the threshold right.
“We want to foster transparency around legitimate activities of foreign actors. We also want to deter and discourage activities that go beyond legitimate diplomacy. … And most importantly, we want to engage Canadians.”
The House of Commons is scheduled to rise for the summer on June 23.
The consultations, which will be held until May 9, are one of several new measures announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week as his government faces increased pressure to explain to Canadians how foreign interference — particularly in elections — is being combatted, as well as how much he and other top ministers have known about such efforts.
The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the independent National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) have each been ordered to undertake studies into foreign interference.
A “special rapporteur” will also be appointed with a “wide mandate” to oversee the probes and put forward recommendations to the government — including whether it should call a public inquiry amid growing calls for a transparent investigation.
Both NSICOP, which includes MPs from multiple parties and one senator, and NSIRA, which is made up of independent experts tasked with reviewing the actions of Canada’s intelligence agencies, hold their activities behind closed doors in order to review classified material.
Mendicino was also tasked Monday with establishing “a counter-foreign interference coordinator” to oversee the work and recommendations coming from various agencies and committees.
Consultations for the foreign agent registry have begun online, and Mendicino said Friday he will be participating in roundtable discussions in the coming weeks.
The minister said on Sunday the consultations are meant to ensure not only transparency for Canadians, but also that Chinese Canadians do not feel stigmatized.
“Members of the Chinese Canadian community are indeed very worried about being painted with the same brush when it comes to these allegations. That’s unfair,” he said.
“They have every right to participate in society fully, including in our politics.”
The public registry would be similar to ones in other members of the Five Eyes alliance, including Australia, where it is part of the government’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.
That law, passed in 2018, requires people advocating for a foreign state to register their activities, under penalty of fines or jail time.
“As a liberal democracy, we don’t mind other governments or companies or individuals trying to at least have a say in in our policies and how we govern in Australia,” Andrew Wallace, an MP for Australia’s Liberal opposition who serves as deputy chair of the government’s intelligence and security committee, told Sorenson in an interview Sunday.
“But what is really important is that that is a transparent process, and that’s the key.”
That transparency extends to how Australia’s intelligence service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), communicates the threats the country faces from foreign interference with the public.
Last month, ASIO’s director general Mike Burgess used his annual assessment speech to warn that multiple nations were using espionage and foreign interference to advance their interests and undermine Australia’s at a rate higher than ever before — an assessment Wallace not only agrees with but also says is important to state publicly.
“We are seeing a tremendous ratcheting up of foreign influence, and foreign interference more particularly, in Australian politics today at unprecedented levels,” he said.
“It has to be said too that … by virtue of that sort of transparency from ASIO and our security agencies and our politicians, that Australians are seized on this issue and are very cognizant that there many — let’s be frank — attacks on our democracy, on our businesses, on government platforms.
“This is happening all day, every day by foreign state actors, particularly China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.”
Wallace said his committee is currently undertaking a statutory review of the legislation “where we are identifying instances that the laws are capturing people that it probably shouldn’t be capturing and not capturing people that it should be capturing.”
Although he declined to say if he felt Canada was doing enough to combat foreign interference, he underscored the necessity of the Five Eyes to work together to face those threats.
“(The alliance) really relies upon us trusting one another, so it is important that we demonstrate to each other that we have got the necessary protections in place,” he said.
“We need to stand together and we need to push back against these authoritarian threats and pressure and economic coercion that we in Australia, I think, we’re the first to face.”
The Liberal government has been under immense pressure to explain what it knew about foreign interference in the 2021 election after the Globe and Mail reported last month that intelligence sources said China attempted to interfere in that campaign to help the Liberals win another minority government.
That report came after months of revelations from Global News about allegations of Chinese interference in the 2019 election.
Just last week, Global News revealed that two high-level national security reports before and after the 2019 election suggest Trudeau and his office were warned that Chinese government officials were funnelling money to Canadian political candidates.
One is a “Special Report” prepared by the Privy Council Office for the Trudeau government and was date-stamped January 2022. The memo was also finalized, suggesting it was intended to be read by Trudeau and his senior aides.
Reviewed by Global News, it asserted that Chinese officials in Toronto had disbursed money into a covert network tasked to interfere in Canada’s 2019 election.
Asked by Sorensen if he had been briefed on that memo, Mendicino would not say if he had seen it specifically.
“This is not a new issue,” he said. “The prime minister has received briefings, I have received briefings, other colleagues have received briefings when it comes to matters that touch on national security.
“For obvious reasons, we can’t simply disclose every last detail of (them),” he added, citing the need to protect intelligence officers and their sources.
He said any transparency on the issue of foreign interference needs to be balanced with such concerns — including in the creation of a foreign agent registry and the consultations that inform it.
“You’ve been saying throughout the course of our conversation that Canadians are concerned,” he told Sorensen. “Well, one of the ways in which we can allay their concerns is to be open about the way in which we create the tools, the way we create the authorities for our national security agencies. This is one way in which we can do that.
“It is not a cure-all for the fight against foreign interference, but it will be stacked on all of the other measures that this government has put into place so that we can be sure that we protect our institutions.”