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Foreign Interference in Canada: Police Stations, the Convoy, and Electoral Interference
What we know so far -- and what is (and isn't) foreign interference
2022 was a hot year for foreign interference, or at least media coverage / speculation about foreign interference. Let’s unpack what we learned last year, with a special emphasis on both known knowns and unknown unknowns, and how we can think about, analyze, and counter foreign interference.
Let’s start by defining foreign interference and influence. According to the RCMP,
foreign actor interference is illegal activity that targets Canadian interests, or interferes in Canadian society and threatens Canada’s national security. This includes attempts to threaten, harass, influence, intimidate, corrupt or discredit individuals, organizations and governments to further the interests of a foreign country.
However, there is no definition in law, nor is there any law explicitly banning states from engaging in these activities.1 Note here too that the definition proffered by the RCMP emphasizes illegal, but not clandestine or deceptive, activities.
“activities within or relating to Canada that are detrimental to the interests of Canada and are clandestine or deceptive or involve a threat to any person”,
This includes attempts by foreign states (or persons / entities operating on their behalf) to covertly influence, intimidate, manipulate, interfere, corrupt, or discredit individuals. These activities are often meant to deceptively influence Government of Canada policies, officials, or democratic processes in support of foreign political agendas. Some examples that CSIS provides of this type of activity includes cultivating influential people, spreading disinformation on social media, and attempts to covertly influence the outcome of elections. These activities are not constrained to a particular level of government: they can target federal, provincial, and municipal governments.
When we think about foreign interference, it can be helpful to ask ourselves two questions: who are the targets of the interference, and what is the goal? So here are three examples of potential foreign interference from 2022 that we can unpack by looking at these goals, targets, and how the activities were conducted.
PRC Police Service Stations
There were a number of different types of foreign interference and influence that were reported last year. One of course was the issue of “police service stations” that were believed to be operating on behalf of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Greater Toronto Area, Vancouver, and elsewhere. According to some news reports, the Chinese police stations have effectively stopped operating due to visits by the RCMP and CSIS, and China’s ambassador to Canada was summed by the Department of Global Affairs over the matter.
These stations appear to have been an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to exert influence over members of the Chinese diaspora in Canada, possibly in support of some of China’s broader domestic and international objectives. These police stations appear to also support efforts by China to repatriate dissidents living abroad, or “persuasion to return” operations where individuals who committed crimes in China are “persuaded” to go back to China to face criminal proceedings. These stations were established clandestinely (in Canada, they were established covertly, although some reports suggest that the stations were established with the knowledge of the host country, like in Italy), they were directed by a foreign government, and they were detrimental to both the interests of Canada, and might have involved threats to specific persons. According to either the CSIS or RCMP definition, these stations are clear examples of foreign interference in Canada, and might have also strayed into illegal activity, providing opportunities for disruption through criminal processes.
Convoy finance and amplification
Much fuss has been made about the issue of foreign support for the Ottawa convoy and occupation, particularly in terms of amplification of the protesters’ message, and in financing of their activities. As long-time readers of this newsletter will recall, I covered that topic in depth.
But let’s look at this activity from the definitions of foreign interference. To start with the RCMP’s definition, while there was clear foreign funding and foreign amplification of the convoy, it wasn’t illegal. And while the convoy might have supported threats to the security of Canada (currently part of the considerations for the Public Order Emergency Commission), the other aspects of the definition do not appear to be met either. From a CSIS definition perspective, the big issue here is that the foreign influence does not appear to have been from a state actor, was not clandestine or deceptive (for the most part), although it was detrimental to the interests of Canada.
In sum, I’d say that the foreign amplification and financing of the convoy did not meet the definitions of foreign interference, although there was some foreign influence (by non-state actors) on the convoy. Countering this type of activity falls outside the scope of foreign interference tools, but we could consider limits on foreign donations political activities in Canada as one possible remedy.
Finally, there were also some allegations last year that politicians received funds from foreign donors. Indeed, as CSIS noted in their public document on foreign interference from 2021, illicit financing can target political parties and candidates: these funds can be seemingly sent from a Canadian, but the funds might have actually originated with a foreign threat actor. This information seems very similar to activity that was reported on in 2022 by Sam Cooper for Global News, and corroborated (in part) by reporting from the Globe and Mail. Some highlights:
In Feb 2020, PCO produced a “national security memo” that documented China’s “alleged “subtle but effective foreign interference networks” that targeted the 2019 federal contest”. This was from the PCO IAS’s “Daily foreign intelligence brief” (published 21 Feb 2020), although the source of the intelligence is unknown. A side note on the brief: these are produced daily, and they are broadly available in the intelligence community. This is not a direct memo to the Prime Minister, although senior levels of governments regularly receive the brief, or excerpts from it.
Cooper also reported that CSIS investigations contain allegations that China’s Toronto consulate covertly funded an interference network that included political staffers and at least 11 election candidates. Cooper says that the consulate made a clandestine transfer of approximately $250,000 to the Toronto-based network. However, subsequent briefings to the Prime Minister said that there was no evidence of Chinese money secretly flowing to the 11 candidates.
The goals of this network were to recruit Canadian politicians and to obtain advice from political staff on China-related issues, according to Cooper’s reporting on an intelligence document.
So what can we make of this? There have been allegations about the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to influence Canadian politics and politicians for well over a decade, well-documented in Stephanie Carvin’s book, Stand on Guard. Some of these allegations also relate to potential funding of political parties. Without knowing the source of the intelligence, it’s very difficult to assess the credibility of the reporting about the foreign interference network, although it seems very much in line with what CSIS has already said publicly about foreign interference.
It’s curious that some sources say that the transfer of funds never took place. This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to verify: if funds were transferred, they were almost certainly deposited in Canadian bank accounts. These transactions could be traced by FINTRAC, or if they fell outside of the Centre’s mandate, through warranted access to the accounts in question. In addition, these donations would, based on the limited information we have here, appear to be in contravention of the Canada Elections Act, meaning that if they occurred, there would be a clear bit of evidence for law enforcement to pursue charges.
Based on what we know so far, there’s a foreign interference network in Canada operating at the direction of the Chinese Community Party (or elements therein). These activities are largely clandestine and deceptive, are state-directed, and in some cases might cross the threshold of legality, and were certainly detrimental to the interests of Canada, clearly meeting both RCMP and CSIS definitions of foreign interference.
(On the broader connections that Cooper alleges in his reporting, including links to the United Front Work Department, I’m more skeptical. Not everything is connected all the time, and in China, there are a lot of different actors and interests at play.)
What we can do about it
There are a couple of things Canada can do to combat foreign interference. The first, and the most boring, is enforcing existing laws, such as the Lobbying Act, the Conflict of Interest Act, and the Canada Elections Act.
Other potential activities that can be undertaken is declaring offending diplomats (individuals who might be directing an interference network, or engaging in interference activities directly) “persona non grata”. This effectively strips them of their diplomatic statues and immunities, and requires them to leave the country.3
Canada could also develop a foreign agent registry. This would close some of the gaps in our existing legislation relating to influence activities, such as cultivating an influential person to advance particular ideas, paying influential people to write op-eds, etc. (Under Australian law, this is communication and disbursement, and are the only real gaps in existing Canadian laws that need to be addressed.) By requiring foreign agents to register, if they were to engage in proscribed activity, this would give law enforcement another tool. However, this would have to be developed to cover all levels of government (federal, municipal, and provincial).
Canada is far behind some of its allies in tackling this issue. This is in part because its a politically-sensitive topic, but also because it crosses political boundaries, and affects governments and political activity at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. This means that coordinating a response is critical. But we also have to acknowledge that there are some vested interests at play here, and upsetting the status quo is likely to leave some political actors upset.
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Stephanie Carvin, Stand on Guard: Reassessing Threats to Canada’s National Security (Toronto ; Buffalo ; London: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2021)., 187