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Canada’s tool kit for dealing with foreign interference is dangerously limited
Globe and Mail op ed
This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail, and was co-authored by my colleague and friend Akshay Singh.
The global threat of foreign interference activities is high – and Canada is not immune to this threat. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS, recently raised concerns about foreign interference from China and Russia. The Communications Security Establishment also told Canadians that foreign actors such as Iran, China and Russia have conducted cyberthreat activity against democratic processes worldwide.
State-sponsored threat actors have taken advantage of domestic groups and movements to influence voters, in some cases promoting content related to the QAnon conspiracy theory. And recently, police and government officials have issued concerns about potential foreign funding of the trucker convoy protests in Ottawa.
International actors will always seek to influence one another; this is the nature of diplomacy and foreign relations. However, influence becomes interference when states attempt to exert influence clandestinely, deceptively or in a threatening manner.
Some states also dedicate large bureaucracies designed to conduct interference operations (for example, the Communist Party of China’s United Front Work Department). These states can exploit Canada’s open democratic system and processes across multiple levels of government and society, using individuals or entities in our country who are rarely (if ever) required to disclose their foreign affiliations.
Overt efforts by states to influence each other pose few national security risks, but this is not always how influence occurs. Despite robust federal electoral financing rules, threat actors in Canada can operate in a “grey space” and work at the behest of a foreign government to deceptively influence Canadian public discourse with little need to be transparent. Entities in Canada can receive international donations to finance protests or political movements, thereby exacerbating social divisiveness or internal conflict.
The federal government does investigate foreign interference in Canada. CSIS has a mandate to investigate such activity; however, it is not a law enforcement body and is limited in what it can do to “disrupt” threat activities. The RCMP also has a foreign interference mandate; however, with no framework requiring entities to disclose activities they conduct on behalf of a foreign government, it can be difficult to prosecute those who operate in shadows.
Overt activity has barely any limit at all, except in relation to donations to political parties.
Government legislation such as the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which requires people “working on behalf of foreign governments or other foreign principals (including Americans)” to disclose their relationships, is by no means perfect. However, it is better than nothing, which is a lesson Australia has had to learn in recent years.
Amid potential foreign interference from China, and lacking a meaningful legislative framework for addressing the problem, the Australian government enacted the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme in December, 2018; two years later, it passed Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Act, which mandated public registration of agreements of state and local government bodies with foreign governments.
A recent private members’ bill in Canada sought to fix some of these problems by enacting a foreign influence registry. This bill is somewhat similar to the U.S. FARA, which, in addition to declaring foreign relationships, requires registrants to disclose agreements with foreign entities, report amounts and sources of funding they have received, and provide an activity log of activities they perform.
But that bill never passed into law, and Canada still has no equivalent legislation or adequate means by which to identify and penalize entities in Canada that are clandestinely or deceptively acting at the behest of foreign interests.
Without legislation in Canada to compel such entities to publicly disclose their relationships, there is little that we can do to punish those who are not transparent. Elected and public officials also often cannot tell who they are ultimately dealing with, or whose interests the entities they meet truly represent. Further, without limits on foreign donations to political activities or requirements to declare such funding, foreign actors (be they states, corporations or private interest groups) can clandestinely or deceptively influence activities in our country with few repercussions.
We face an increasingly precarious situation in Canada. We generally only find out about foreign interference after the fact – when it’s too late.
Our national security agencies have repeatedly sounded the alarm regarding foreign interference in this country, and concerns are not going away, but we have frighteningly few solutions. We need greater investigative and enforcement tools for the laws already on the books. We also need to consider whether we want Canadian political discourse to be funded by foreign actors – and if not, what we can do to stop it.