Tackling Foreign Interference
A Matter of Heart, Will and Action
Diaspora communities deserve protection from foreign threats.
My parents were factory workers when they first came to Canada. They worked overtime a lot. They managed to pay for my sisters and I to have piano lessons and enjoy the occasional Happy Meal. I was protective of my parents because of their sacrifices and marginalized status in society. Now, as I get older, when I see immigrant families, especially the new ones, I have a special place in my heart for them as if I’m looking at my own parents and siblings.
I’m sure many first and second generation Canadians can resonate with my story.
While the socio-economic spectrum of diaspora communities have evolved from the late 1970s to early 1990s, when I was growing up, new immigrants who arrive in Canada today with little in their pockets still encounter many challenges. They have to glean jobs no one else wants. They put up with workplace injustices that the average Canadian won’t tolerate. They work hard and long hours to give their children a good future. Sometimes a racist comment ambushes an otherwise good day. They quietly endure much more than they should because they are simply grateful to be here.
Canada is the promised land for those who come from countries inflicted by poverty, war and violent dictators. Our country offers freedom and opportunities for a better life. But when harassed, blackmailed or followed by proxies sent by foreign oppressors, life is disrupted by fear. The promised land is no longer a safe haven. Peace and freedom are held captive once again by a dictator that the diaspora once sought to flee.
I was troubled to learn of such intimidation tactics during my term as Member of Parliament for Port Moody—Coquitlam. Various individuals approached my office with reports of harassment from a foreign dictatorship. As I tried to help them, I faced the sad reality that the system wasn’t equipped to support them. I left the file open, hoping to piece together solutions over time.
Then last year, while transitioning from public office to civilian life, I began studying National Security and Intelligence at a university in Ottawa. I wanted to better understand the threats and conflicts that impact Canadians. Ultimately, I was searching for knowledge to develop policies that would better support targeted diaspora communities.
Then several months ago, when reports on foreign interference began to hit the spotlight, I realized that the timing of my studies in national security were not to be taken lightly. Consequently, I’ve been closely monitoring the media and the House of Commons on this topic.
About a year after I started, I completed my Certificate for National Security and Intelligence in May last month. Then I began to consult experts on intelligence and law enforcement, hoping to find clarity on legislation, red tape, threat levels and capacity for our country to handle foreign interference. I concluded that is is urgent to fortify our national security system.
Now the same question returns full circle after three years: How do we protect diaspora communities targeted by hostile foreign regimes?
This question compelled me to do some research on diaspora communities from multiple ethnic backgrounds. I perceived fear, anger and courage. Frustration was common because of no reliable protection.
The issue of foreign interference is a sensitive topic. The complex tensions of diverse political views, overt dissidence, coerced loyalty, and infiltration make some diaspora communities more difficult and sensitive to navigate. Infiltration of proxies has also become more sophisticated with time. Thus, whatever the plan, it will have to be thoughtful, sensitive and specialized to meet the unique needs of diverse community dynamics.
Politicians need to change their attitude towards the intelligence community.
Before polices can be significantly shaped to counter foreign interference, there needs to be a cultural shift in the way politicians engage with the intelligence community. I’ve heard former security service members express that politicians are generally uninterested in what they do except in a crisis. One went as far as saying that the intelligence community is misunderstood and denigrated.
Observing the exchange between politicians and security experts on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) meetings in the House of Commons, there is certainly room for improvement. Ministers need to own their responsibility as the ones giving directives to their departments. The Minister of Public Safety needs to look at CSIS as an investigative department that is always in the process of piecing together a threat story. The Minister can’t ignore the pieces until the threat is obvious. It’s too late by then.
By the time intelligence reaches the Minister, it has likely already undergone multiple forms of analysis to test the integrity of the information, which the Minister then should consider for policy, action, or at the very least, bring under advisement.
Interest and consistent engagement are critical to ensure there are no gaps in the communication flow with intelligence. Intelligence briefings should be part of a Minister’s discernment process to cultivate wisdom and insight to protect the security of our nation. Briefings aren’t to be treated like spam mail.
We prevent crisis moments such as the one we are confronted with today by staying engaged with our security services and giving long-term consideration to their briefings. There should be no surprises on the government’s part if they’re doing their due diligence by taking intelligence seriously.
On a positive note, I was very impressed with the questions raised by opposition MPs to the security witnesses at PROC meetings. They were thoughtful and drove home the spirit of accountability. I support the idea of engaging more MPs in security briefings, independent of the Prime Minister’s Office. This would strengthen the accountability infrastructure with more eyes to ensure any political apathy toward national security is thwarted.
At the end of the day, the secret service should be respected for their painstaking operations that often leave a psychological toll on its members. They are unseen soldiers who work around the clock to protect our national interests but don’t always get to see the fruit of their ongoing investigations in real time. It takes great perseverance and focus to do their work.
Politicians need to perceive immigrant Canadians as Canadians, not mere photo ops.
For over thirty years, CSIS has been aware of intimidation tactics used by hostile foreign state actors toward diaspora communities in Canada. They’ve been briefing Canada’s governments on this problem for decades. Yet, there is still no specialized support measure in the system to protect targeted individuals. This is unconscionable. Not only have we failed our immigrant Canadians, we’ve enabled hostile states to target Canada as an easy playing field through years of negligence. It’s one thing to have a CSIS Act and the bureaucracy to support it. It’s another thing to implement practical measures to tackle the problem. This is the government’s job.
Canada has come a long way since the days of head taxes on the very people who sacrificially built the transnational railway that helped birth our nation. But what remains unresolved is the lack of full acceptance of select immigrant Canadians as true Canadians who are entitled to experience the fullness of our country’s democratic rights and freedoms.
It’s time for politicians to respect immigrant Canadians as Canadians, not mere photo ops, or potential voters. When, after decades, the government has failed to establish robust measures to counter electoral interference, including voter suppression, by hostile foreign states, it is denying protection of the democratic rights of targeted Canadians to vote freely or in the case of MPs Michael Chong and Jenny Kwan, to freely exercise their parliamentary rights.
Moreover, the criminal justice system gives victims “the right to have their security and privacy considered, to have reasonable and necessary protection from intimidation and retaliation, and to ask that their identity not be publicly released.”
The lack of safeguards for victims perpetuates their silence and fear and bolsters confidence for hostile regimes to persist with their tactics.
The government has no excuse for its weak handling of foreign threats to our diaspora communities and electoral process.
Foreign interference is not new. It has been a long standing threat to democracies around the world. During the 2018 G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, G7 leaders committed to working together and as individual nations to address foreign threats against democracy. One of the joint initiatives that came about was the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM). The 2021 G7 Rapid Response Mechanism Annual Report covers a variety of topics including evolving trends in “foreign state-sponsored information manipulation activities in 2021 where tactics played a key role”.
Additionally, the recent Interim Report of the Special Committee on the Canada–People’s Republic of China Relationship, indicates it was formed in 2020 under a slightly different name “with a mandate to study all aspects of Canada’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China” along with the “national security dimensions of the relationship” such as the threat of foreign influence. The Committee resumed its study last year after pausing from the 2021 election. The Interim Report documents 34 recommendations.
Advocacy groups have also been addressing foreign interference threats for years. They have spoken at committee meetings and inter-parliamentary forums for Members of Parliament. Alliance Canada Hong Kong recently released the report, Murky Waters: Beijing’s Influence in Canadian Democratic and Electoral Processes in May of this year. It is a valuable documentation of findings and recommendations from the diaspora community.
Moreover, there is ample research, intelligence and information to start developing policy and taking action right away. It’s a matter of political will.
While the government purports to have taken more action than previous governments to tackle the issue of foreign interference, its measures have not been effective. Prime Minister Trudeau’s plan to protect Canada’s democracy was a response to the G7 Summit commitment to safeguard our democracy from foreign threats. Yet the four pillars of actions he presented—enhancing citizen preparedness, improving organizational readiness, combatting foreign interference and building a healthy information ecosystem—have failed to address the safety of our diaspora. Nor have they protected our elections from the mess we are now trying to untangle.
The Government has no excuse for its weak handling of foreign threats to our diaspora communities and electoral process. There have been enough warnings from every direction for a long time—CSIS, our allies, advocacy groups and our own parliamentary committees presenting recommendations. The government didn’t need classified briefings or CSIS media leaks to find the will to address the issue seriously.
But is the government now discussing the issue with the intentions of fixing the problem or to simply manage their public relations crisis?
There is a need for Canada to pay attention to two entities that have received little attention in the past but have now emerged together on the matter of national security— diaspora Canadians and the intelligence community. These two communities converge on the issue of national security today because proxy wars are real, sophisticated and require robust policies and attention to protect our freedom, safety, and prosperity. We need to make it as difficult as possible for foreign meddling of our domestic affairs from states like Russia, the PRC, Iran and India.
An absence of robust policies to counter foreign interference can potentially cultivate increased racial profiling, scapegoating and hate.
At the wake of David Johnston’s resignation and the government’s deferral of responsibility to the opposition for a public process, we are at a critical juncture. I implore the House of Commons to not allow the issue of foreign interference to die with the rising of Parliament.
It took us over thirty years to really start talking about this. Now we need to seize the moment and fortify our vulnerabilities.
If we don’t come up with robust policies to deal firmly with hostile proxies and infiltrators, the breaches will only worsen. Canadians will not feel safe. If the government fails to provide enough assurance to Canadians, it is only natural that Canadians will begin to police their fellow Canadians in their own minds. As the public becomes more aware of infiltration and hostile interference, an absence of strong measures to counter and prosecute proxies can potentially cultivate increased racial profiling, scapegoating and hate from extremist groups.
The mass dispossession and internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War was a war time measure based on fear, racism, and a legislative gap that failed to protect innocent diaspora Canadians during a time of conflict.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, Canada declared war on Japan and additionally labelled Canadians of Japanese descent as enemy aliens. Approximately 22,000 Japanese Canadians were dispossessed of their belongings, property, and life’s work. They were displaced and forced into internment camps. Of the 22,000, how many were actually traitors, spies, and enemies?
A Province of British Columbia web site states: No Japanese Canadian was ever charged with disloyalty, and the incident is now acknowledged as one of the worst human rights violations in B.C.'s history.
Contrary to some claims that discussing foreign interference is a trigger for more racism, it is more detrimental to the diaspora communities if the issue is not addressed and resolved with strong legislation. Meaningful discussions are necessary to bring about a foreign registry that works, protective measures for targeted Canadians and improved means to identify and prosecute hostile agents. Without an effective system in place, we run the risk as a nation to breed more discrimination and embolden foreign states to up their hostile campaigns.
Before we can move forward, we must bridge the gap of broken trust.
But before we can move forward to develop a foreign registry, prosecutorial tools, and victim protection plans, we must bridge the chasm of broken trust.
Because to move forward, as Canadians, we need to regain trust that the government has the will and integrity to resolve the matter, otherwise, we can only expect mere optics of effort, stalling and inaction.
Canadians want a public inquiry because they want to know the truth about how the government has been handling threats to our democracy and freedom. They want to know the truth about electoral interference and if the allegations made by the CSIS leaks are accurate.
A public inquiry can help restore the people’s confidence in a democracy, where accountability is still alive, and restore confidence where trust may have been unduly lost.
Canadians cannot be expected to blindly accept the government’s words when they say, “We’ve been doing a great job. But we can do more. Just trust us.”
Trust begins with respect.
Trudeau’s designation of David Johnston as Special Rapporteur has deep implications of underlying lack of respect for the Canadian people. A conflict of interest is a conflict of interest. Trying to fool Canadians into accepting a lesser ethical standard by blasting any opposing statement as a conspiracy theory, hyper-partisanship or an ad hominem attack, undermines the capacity of Canadians to distinguish between right and wrong and expect maturity and honesty in our leaders.
The Liberal government needs to understand that trust has been damaged.
A public inquiry is about restoring accountability so people can trust our democracy is a work in progress, not a shipwreck.
A public inquiry is a gift for the people, and a time of accountability for politicians.
As the government and opposition leaders come together to arrive at an agreement of a public process, I hope it will serve as a turning point to raise the bar of truth, integrity, accountability, and teachability in our Parliament.
What a public inquiry can do, if carried out with integrity and fortitude, is salvage the public’s trust that our democracy has not grown impotent in its capacity to hold governments to account.
An effective public inquiry will help the public feel like their engagement does matter.
An authentic public inquiry will remind Canadians that Canada belongs to the people and not to any one government or party.
These are the hallmarks of a strong democracy.
But for a public inquiry to yield more answers than what we’ve seen over the last several months, the conscience and patriotism of those who are called to testify must transcend any personal fear or agenda.
It’s about doing the right thing because you believe the long-term payoff for the greater good outweighs the adversity you might face for challenging the status quo.
This is moral courage.
Moral courage is the substance that built our democracy. We need to revitalize our democracy, at the very least, to a standard our veterans and fallen heroes fought and died for.
Canada is yearning for women and men of courage to help turn the page.
If we don’t turn the page, we will continue to enable a culture of excuses, abdication, unkept promises, entitlement, and self-serving agendas that stifle the halls of our parliament, legislatures and municipalities rather than compel action and real solutions that address the freedom, safety, and prosperity of the people.
An effective public inquiry is dependent on individuals who put our nation and people above personal gain and are willing to take risks to do the right thing.
This begins with our nation’s top leader.
Mr. Justin Trudeau, please do not pressure CSIS, your bureaucrats, or the opposition to fix the problems for which you are accountable.
Please do not prorogue Parliament or call an election to dodge accountability.
Please brace this hour like the Prime Minister of a glorious nation, because that is who you are.
Former Member of Canada’s Parliament