Following claims that Chinese agents interfered in recent Canadian elections and stole industry secrets from Hydro-Québec, Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos is calling on the Canadian government to take a much harder line against China — a country he describes as "an evil authoritarian regime."
Housakos has introduced a bill, S-237, that would establish a foreign influence registry in Canada — a system that would compel agents working on behalf of a foreign government to either register their interactions with public officials in Canada or face criminal penalties.
Under this proposed law, any foreign-backed agent who fails to declare any interaction with a "public office holder" — like a cabinet minister, an MP, a senator or a senior government official — could be charged with a crime and face hefty fines and up to two years in jail.
While the registry is meant to act as a deterrent, it also would empower police to charge people for things that are not necessarily criminal under current law.
The proposed registry is similar to registries that exist elsewhere in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance (made up of Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom).
In the U.S., for example, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires people working for a "foreign principal" to publicly disclose their activities.
A number of former U.S. president Donald Trump's staffers were charged under the law after promoting foreign interests stateside.
The 1938 law was enacted in response to concerns about Nazi and communist propaganda in the U.S.
Housakos said Canada needs this sort of law now to deal with a different threat — an "increasingly belligerent" China.
Canada has a long list of grievances against Beijing that demand some sort of response, he added.
China has been accused of meddling in Canada's elections. A Chinese national was mysteriously fired from Canada's National Microbiology Lab. A Chinese national working at Hydro-Quebec has been criminally charged for alleged economic espionage. China's ambassador threatened MPs and senators with "forceful measures" as payback for Parliament describing China's treatment of its Uyghur minority as a genocide. And Beijing arbitrarily detained two Canadians for more than 1,000 days.
'Evil' regimes trying to manipulate us, senator says
"There's no doubt countries like China, Iran, Russia, just to name a few of the evil authoritarian regimes, are trying to influence our institutions, our laws," Housakos told CBC News.
"All of these regimes are very active in Canada and we have a prime minister and a government that refuses to take concrete steps."
Bill S-237 represents "a small but important step" toward curbing that interference, he added.
"Canada has been under siege from regimes like Beijing, like Moscow, like Tehran, and now we need to step up and take action to protect the security of our institutions. We need to put these nations on notice that if you're going to set up spy operations or policing activities to intimidate Canadians, there will be consequences," Housakos said, referring to reports that China has established "police stations" in Canada and elsewhere to keep an eye on Chinese nationals living abroad.
"We need some laws with teeth."
A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said "protecting Canada's democracy is a responsibility" the government takes "extremely seriously."
The spokesperson said CSIS and the RCMP are regularly investigating allegations of foreign interference.
The spokesperson did not answer questions about whether the government would enact a foreign registry.
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston is a senior fellow at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa and an expert on China.
She said China's alleged interference in our democracy — through what Global News has described as a "clandestine network" of candidates in the 2019 election — is "extremely serious."
Citing unnamed sources, Global News reported last week that China was behind "a vast campaign of foreign inference" in Canadian politics, including attempts to "co-opt and corrupt former Canadian officials to gain leverage in Ottawa" and a campaign to "punish Canadian politicians whom the People's Republic of China views as threats to its interests."
Speaking to reporters Sunday, though, Trudeau denied that he had any knowledge of the alleged interference, though he said he had instructed officials to look into the claims and co-operate with the parliamentary committee investigating the issue.
"But let me be clear, I do not have any information, nor have I been briefed, on any federal candidates receiving any money from China," he said.
McCuaig-Johnston said Canadian police must mobilize to investigate these claims. She said she also supports the idea of a foreign registry along the lines of what Housakos is proposing.
She also pointed out that the last parliamentarian to propose such a registry may have been targeted by the Chinese government himself.
Former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu has accused the Chinese government of targeting him with a disinformation campaign during the last federal election because he introduced legislation to enact a foreign registry. Chiu ultimately lost his seat in a riding with a large number of Chinese-Canadian voters.
"It should really be the government that brings this registry in," McCuaig-Johnston said, adding that the state of Canada-China relations leaves Ottawa with little to lose
"Canada is still in the deep freeze. We're still being punished for Meng," she said, referring to Canada's 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant.
"We have to set all the pressure aside and say, 'We're going to do what's right for Canada,' and that includes a foreign registry act."
'This shouldn't be a partisan issue'
In an interview with CBC Radio's The House, Dan Stanton, a retired CSIS intelligence officer and the director of national security at the University of Ottawa's Professional Development Institute, said action against China needs to be above everyday party politics.
To start, Stanton said, Canada needs to amend the existing CSIS Act to empower national security agencies to deal with "foreign influence," not just Cold War-era style foreign "interference."
"This shouldn't be a partisan issue. There needs to be a Team Canada approach. It shouldn't be an us vs. them issue. It needs to be multi-party, because all parties are vulnerable," he said.
While Canada has done little to counter China up to now, Stanton said he thinks there's now a "window of opportunity" for the Liberal government to take legislative action to safeguard Canada's interests.
He said he's encouraged by the fact that the Commons procedure and House affairs committee (PROC) will be probing these election interference allegations in the coming weeks.
"The government gets it. They really do. And I think they genuinely want to push back. There's a good opportunity to get some legislative changes," he said.