China and Russia are using their diaspora, undercover agents and groups based on Canadian campuses as part of “significant and sustained” foreign interference activities in Canada, according to a new redacted intelligence report.
The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) says those methods are part of an attempt by foreign actors to sway public opinion, manipulate the media and influence government decision-making.
“The committee believes that these states target Canada for a variety of reasons, but all seek to exploit the openness of our society and penetrate our fundamental institutions to meet their objectives,” notes the committee’s annual report, tabled this morning.
“They target ethnocultural communities, seek to corrupt the political process, manipulate the media, and attempt to curate debate on post-secondary campuses. Each of these activities poses a significant risk to the rights and freedoms of Canadians and to the country’s sovereignty: they are a clear threat to the security of Canada.”
Liberal MP David McGuinty, chair of the committee, said he couldn’t answer questions about how successful those attempts have been or how many there are in a year.
Most of the information about both countries’ specific objectives are redacted — blacked-out — in the report.
Pressure on communities
One of the main ways foreign actors try to seek influence in Canada is through targeting and manipulating ethnocultural communities here, said the committee’s report.
“Some individuals willingly act as agents of a foreign power for a variety of reasons, including patriotism or the expectation of reciprocal favours,” it said.
But others are pressured into doing foreign actors’ bidding through threats, harassment and the detention of family members abroad, the report said,
The People’s Republic of China uses its growing wealth to mobilize its interference operations and can call on its citizens to contribute, said the committee, which is made up of both MPs and senators.
“It is likely that citizens can be compelled to assist PRC state actors in interference efforts if and when those efforts fall under the broader definition of ‘national intelligence work’ and ‘national intelligence efforts,'” the committee’s report says.
CSIS told the committee China and Russia are the “primary threat actors” on Canadian campuses. The report says some state actors try to influence debate on campus, but also are interested in espionage and intellectual theft.
It names Confucius Institutes and Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs), two organizations that offer support for international students.
While the committee notes the CSSAs are not nefarious in and of themselves, “there is growing public concern about the relationship between the associations and the [People’s Republic of China] embassies and consulates.”
Confucius Institutes are funded by the Chinese government to teach Chinese language and culture. CSIS pointed the committee to New Brunswick, which recently shut down a Confucius Institute due to community complaints related to foreign interference.
The Canadian report quotes the findings of a U.S. Homeland Security committee which found that “Confucius Institute funding comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom.”
“The Chinese government approves all teachers, events, and speakers,” the U.S. government committee said. “The Chinese teachers sign contracts with the Chinese government pledging they will not damage the national interests of China.”
The report’s recommendations
The committee’s report says the federal government has been slow to react to the threat of foreign interference and that individual organizations are interpreting the gravity of the threat differently.
The report goes on to recommend a number of ways the government should respond,
McGuinty said the government needs to craft a new strategy, across departments, to counter the threat. The report highlighted Australia, a Five Eyes ally, which has set up a national counter foreign interference coordinator.
“It’s time to up our game,” McGuinty said. “Many front line police officers don’t understand what the concept of foreign interference is.”
Politicians at various levels of government can be targeted, notes the report, but they aren’t always briefed because of security clearances. The report recommends that information gap be looked as the government finds ways for ministers and senior officials to engage with institutions and the public about foreign interference.
Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst who now teaches at Carleton University, said the broad nature of foreign interference in Canada drives home the need for a resiliency plan.
“It’s really hard to make foreign influence illegal in a democracy because we have free speech, because we have rules about what you’re allowed to say, but we can try and make these communities that are being targeted more resilient,” she said.
“We can try and open lines of communication to either law enforcement or security agencies so these individuals who feel they’re being targeted in Canada can come forward, express their concern and feel that they are being listened to.”
Unredacted versions of both reports were presented to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau back in August, before the federal election campaign officially started. Declassified versions of the reports had to be tabled within 30 sitting days of the return of Parliament.
Unlike other parliamentary committees, the NSICOP meets in secret and reports directly to the prime minister on national security matters. Its members hold top secret security clearances and are bound to secrecy.
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