This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
By Charles Burton and Kaveh Shahrooz, April 24, 2023
Politicians or civil servants with even the slightest role in shaping Canada’s foreign policy should be prohibited — including after they return to the private sector — from receiving payments or gifts for supporting a foreign nation’s agenda in Canada. They should also be required to declare all foreign sources of income to allay any concerns about a possible conflict of interest.
To ensure such safeguards, we need appropriate legislation.
The past year has seen rising public distress about the integrity of our policy processes, after media reports revealed classified documents about China’s efforts to manipulate the outcomes of Canada’s last two federal elections.
Canadians are alarmed at the spectre of foreign states hijacking our democracy, but confidence has also been piqued by our own government’s apparent reluctance to visibly and energetically confront this threat.
After years of resisting calls for such a measure, the federal government has just begun hearing select public input on creating a new Federal Influence Registry Act (FIRA) to help track foreign meddling. This month, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino held “stakeholder consultations” in Vancouver with Chinese community members.
But even if Canadians can have a say about protecting our policies from outside sabotage, a vexing concern is whether their worries are shared by Canada’s major political parties.
Our allies know the threat is real. Australia and the U.S. have such laws in place, and the U.K. will soon enact its own legislation. Canada has given itself no such protections.
The path to achieving FIRA is fraught with challenges, not least because so many respected private-sector Canadian leaders — who associate with both major political parties — have through naivete or greed become beholden to regimes hostile to Canada’s interests. Now these enablers find themselves quietly urging parliamentarians to let this pesky influence registry matter quietly slide out of sight.
There is also concern that any legislation meant to neutralize foreign subversion of Canada’s institutions will fall short of our allies’ strong measures, being kept weak so as not to not expose any ex-politicians now benefitting from significant income streams from Chinese regime-related sources, which have been described as “life transforming amounts of money.”
As CSIS has exposed, the primary culprits behind the rise of foreign interference in Canada are China, North Korea, Iran and Russia. China’s United Front Work Department has been the most active, launching disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining any legislative attempt to challenge Beijing’s influence operations in Canada.
In an effort to distort and exploit this year’s 100th anniversary of Canada’s shameful Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, Chinese operatives absurdly depict the proposed modern-day FIRA as equivalent to that racist legislation of a century ago, asking “how can we prevent this registry from becoming a modern form of Chinese exclusion?”
This assertion is repugnant, particularly to earlier generations of Canadians of Chinese origin and others who worked hard over many years to finally, in 2006, obtain an apology and compensation for the victims of the 1885 Chinese Head Tax legislation.
As Chinese-Canadian filmmaker and democracy activist Cheuk Kwan told the Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, “The Chinese Canadian community together with the Uyghur community, Tibetan community and other people welcome this foreign agent registry. A registry on foreign agents is not the same as a registry on all Chinese Canadians.”
Canada must have no toleration for racism in all its forms, old and new, but we must also recognize that alarmist claims about a foreign registry being racist are simply a red herring. The danger is that this kind of disinformation campaign could succeed in obscuring the real threat. Canada desperately needs to take real steps that counter efforts to subvert the stability of our country.
Charles Burton and Kaveh Shahrooz are senior fellows at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.