The Liberal government is not providing a timeline for a new registry that would require foreign agents to disclose their activities in Canada as the House of Commons returns from its summer hiatus.
In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to bring in new legislation to force those working on behalf of foreign governments in Canada to disclose their activities. The promise was made after months of revelations from Global News and the Globe and Mail about the scope of the Chinese Communist Party’s alleged meddling in Canadian affairs.
Public consultations on the “foreign influence transparency registry” ended on May 9, and former Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said in April it was “urgent” to fix gaps in Canada’s defences against foreign interference operations before the next federal election.
“It is urgent, yes. But there are tangible recommendations that we can now use,” Mendicino told a House of Commons committee then. But four months after consultations closed there is no hint of a proposal from Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc’s office.
“There are still consultations that need to occur, discussions that need to occur,” said a government source, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
When reminded that consultations ended in early May, the source said the government was committed to “getting this right” and that a foreign agents registry is one piece of a larger government push to crack down on foreign influence operations.
“There are a lot of moving pieces. There’s a lot on the go in the national security space at the moment,” the source said.
Wesley Wark, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and a longtime national security scholar, said that the lack of movement on the registry could provide ammunition for opposition politicians.
“It seems to me the greatest vulnerability and attack vector for the opposition parties is just what on earth is happening with the foreign influence transparency registry,” Wark said in an interview with Global News last week.
“Progress does seem to be a bit stalled on that file, and I think Conservatives in particular are going to press the government on that. Why is this slow moving? Does the government really intend to fulfill its promises and commitments on that front? And the government will be on the defensive on that one, I think.”
Revelations about the Chinese government’s alleged influence operations in Canada created a political firestorm for the government earlier this year. For months, Trudeau and his cabinet resisted demands for a full public inquiry into the issue – instead appointing former Governor General David Johnston as a “special rapporteur” with clearance to review top-secret intelligence.
Johnston concluded against a full public inquiry but was hounded from his role by Conservative allegations that he was too close to the Trudeau family.
While Ottawa’s attention is now focused on housing and affordability issues, the issue of foreign meddling in Canadian affairs is not going away, thanks in part to multiple probes in public and behind closed doors.
The (Time-Crunched) Public Inquiry
After months of delay and against the explicit recommendation of their own special rapporteur, the Liberal government agreed to hold a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian elections.
LeBlanc appointed Marie-Josée Hogue, a Québec Court of Appeal judge, to lead the inquiry on Sept. 7, after months of negotiations with senior opposition politicians. The all-party consensus on Hogue’s appointment should shield her from the level of partisan criticism that Johnston faced.
That’s not to say Hogue will have an easy job.
Hogue has little experience in national security issues and has a very tight timeline. She’s expected to provide a preliminary classified report to the government by Feb. 29, 2024. In the intervening four months, she will have to set up the commission, hold public hearings, review reams of evidence, and come to her conclusions.
Even if the partisan jousting around foreign interference quiets over the next few months, the inquiry will still face considerable scrutiny in terms of how Hogue conducts the probe, how government agencies co-operate with the inquiry, and ultimately in what she recommends.
“We want to make sure that the government fully co-operates with Justice Hogue and her work, that they provide the information she is looking for to get to the bottom of who knew what and when in the last two elections,” said Michael Chong, a Conservative MP who was himself targeted by Beijing, said in an interview.
By the time Hogue’s report is publicly released, the political pressure and media scrutiny around the issue may have dissipated. But the report’s findings could re-ignite the issue for the public, who will likely be closer an opportunity to make their feelings known in a general election.
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Multiple other Parliamentary probes
With the return of the House of Commons, parliamentary committees will resume after the summer barbecue circuit and sketch out their work plans.
On the foreign interference file, the committees to watch are the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) as well as the Canada-China Relations Committee.
PROC concluded in late May that the government should call a public inquiry. The Liberal-chaired committee also suggested opposition leaders should obtain the appropriate security clearance so they can read the confidential sections of Johnson’s report, something Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has resisted, arguing it would prevent him from criticizing the government on the file, which is not true.
Away from the spotlight, two intelligence review bodies – the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Committee (NSIRA) – have agreed to probe issues surrounding foreign interference.
NSICOP’s first report on the issue, released with little fanfare a week before the COVID pandemic and quickly forgotten, found that foreign interference was a serious challenge in Canada and named both China and Russia as prime culprits. National security observers would add India, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to that list.
Both reports will provide crucial information into how Canadian intelligence agencies and government actors have dealt with the threats and potentially where they fell short.
What about Han Dong?
Another unresolved issue is the fate of former Liberal MP Han Dong, now sitting as an independent. He stepped away from the government caucus after Global News reported that he discussed delaying the detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig with an official from the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Toronto consulate.
While he did not disclose the conversation before the media made inquiries, Dong denied advocating for the ‘Two Michaels’ continued detention. In his interim report, Johnston said that Dong did not suggest the PRC extend their detention, but confirmed the conversation took place. Johnston also suggested the media reports may have been based on an early draft of an intelligence memo.
Dong is now suing Global News. His future in the Liberal caucus remains unclear, with LeBlanc tasked with determining if the Toronto MP should be allowed to run under the Liberal banner again. LeBlanc said in July that he would meet with Dong to assess whether Dong could rejoin the Liberals.
Asked last week if LeBlanc and Dong met over the summer, LeBlanc’s office sent a boilerplate statement about the steps that the government has taken to combat foreign interference.
“Our government has put in place robust measures to protect our democracy and Canadians from foreign interference,” since 2015, wrote LeBlanc spokesperson Jean-Sébastien Comeau in a statement to Global News.
Pressed on the question, a government source said they could not say whether LeBlanc has met with Dong.