This article originally appeared in iPolitics.
By Marcus Kolga, September 28, 2023
Rapt speculation about a cross-border assassination in Canada has been fuelling headlines around the world, but covert repression taking place in foreign countries is not new.
Surveillance, disinformation, interference, threats, and murder are among the tactics foreign regimes deploy to discredit and silence critics and activists in Canada. In recent years these activities have increased, as participating regimes and their domestic Canadian enablers carry on with near impunity.
The alleged assassination of a Sikh political activist last June offers a tragic example of what can happen if transnational repression remains unchallenged in Canada. Countless other diaspora Canadians, human rights activists and critics of the Chinese, Russian, Iranian and other foreign regimes, remain vulnerable to this threat, which impacts free speech and association, and have a devastating psychological impact on activists and their families.
Foreign regimes often use proxies inside and outside of Canada to conduct their dirty work. These could include morally vacant academics, former diplomats or fringe journalists who belong to Potemkin think tanks created to legitimize authoritarian governments. Their campaigns seek to discredit activists who promote opposition to authoritarian regimes and spread narratives that stoke hatred towards targeted ethnic communities.
China’s determination to monitor, control, threaten and silence Hong Kong, Uyghur and Tibetan advocates is well documented. Canadian MP Michael Chong recently testified to a congressional committee in Washington, describing how his family in Hong Kong had been threatened by the authorities in an effort to silence his criticism of Beijing. Uyghur activists like Mehmet Tohti have reported receiving mysterious phone calls with disturbing suggestions that their families have been harmed or have disappeared.
Since Russia invaded of Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin and its enablers in Canada have cultivated hateful narratives on social media and elsewhere that falsely characterize Canadians of Ukrainian and central and eastern European heritage as Nazi collaborators and sympathizers.
Russia’s embassy in Canada works actively to silence its critics. As an activist who has exposed Russian operations in Canada, I have received death threats and been smeared by campaigns to discredit me. The psychological impact of wearing down and exhausting the victims of transnational repression is real, as are the effects on our families.
In the most serious cases, victims and their families are threatened with sexual violence and death. In 2019, when a young Tibetan-Canadian activist named Chemi Lhamo became president of the University of Toronto student union, her election was clearly a threat to the Chinese government. In the following weeks she was targeted by a sustained harassment and intimidation campaign, including threats of rape and murder, and threats to her family in Tibet.
Iranian activists in Canada are also targeted. Maryam Shafipour, an Iranian who has spent time in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and now lives in Canada, told the CBC last year that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard had been threatening her family in Iran.
Despite warnings from activists , diaspora groups and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliament , which has cautioned that foreign authoritarian regimes are “undermining Canadian values and freedoms, and threatening the personal liberties of Canadians”, Ottawa has been slow to acknowledge and act to protect and defend vulnerable Canadian diaspora groups and human rights activists.
Foreign regimes remain able to stalk their critics in Canada, promoting dangerous hate towards any groups they choose. Canada’s failure to confront these attacks and fully support victims of transnational repression threatens to silence those brave souls who stand up to defend democracy and human rights.
Justice Marie-Josée Hogue’s inquiry into foreign interference must investigate this dark aspect of foreign interference in our democracy and society and offer practical solutions to protect it.
Canada’s government must act urgently to protect citizens from foreign transnational repression, by providing support to victims, investigating and prosecuting perpetrators and enacting a foreign influence registry to identify the enablers of these regimes.
Marcus Kolga is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. He is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, digital-communications strategist, and a Canadian expert on Russian and Central and Eastern European issues. He is the co-founder and publisher of UpNorth.eu, which features analysis and news from the Nordic and Baltic region.