Liberals begin consultations on foreign influence registry, but with no timeline

OTTAWA — The Liberal government is beginning consultations to create a foreign influence registry, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino announced Friday, but he refused to say when the measure could be up and running.

The government has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks over allegations in media reports that they did not act when they were warned China was trying to interfere in the last two federal elections. The reports by Global News and the Globe and Mail newspaper cite unnamed security sources and leaks of highly classified documents.

"There are few greater challenges that we face than foreign interference," Mendicino said at a news conference on Parliament Hill.

"As a government, we must keep our eyes wide open."

The registry would require people who act on behalf of a foreign state to advance its goals to disclose their ties to the government employing them. It would be another tool, Mendicino said, to prevent other countries from meddling in Canada's affairs.

The idea of a registry, which exists in Australia and the United States, is to make those dealings more transparent, with the possibility of fines or even prison time for failing to comply.

The consultations will begin Friday and run until May 9, including through a virtual portal on the Department of Public Safety's website.

Mendicino signalled late last year that the Liberal government wanted to hear from experts and the broader public, including members of affected communities, about creating a registry.

Speaking to reporters Friday, he provided no details about when a registry could be operating, including whether it could be in place before the next federal election. The timing of that vote depends in part on the minority government's supply and confidence agreement with the federal New Democrats.

One of the goals of the consultation is to "broadly engage all Canadians in a conversation about how to protect our institutions from foreign interference in an inclusive manner that respects the diversity of our population and, of course, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms," he said.

International Trade Minister Mary Ng, who is of Chinese descent,said it is important to create the registry in such a way that does not stoke anti-Asian racism.

"We have a great responsibility to ensure that we are not unfairly or unintentionally creating a cloud that hovers over an entire community that is feeling incredibly uncertain and who have felt the discomfort of unconscious bias that became very conscious in the early days of the pandemic," said Ng, who joined Mendicino at the announcement.

She said there have been examples of the Canadian government targeting members of the Asian community, including the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press