Canada will expel Chinese diplomats if there is evidence of wrongdoing: Joly

OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly confirmed Thursday that Canada denied a diplomatic visa request from a Chinese political operative last fall due to concerns about foreign interference — and said she wouldn't hesitate to expel diplomats for the same reason.

"I've instructed my department to never shy away from denying a visa if it's a political operative linked to the Communist Party of China," Joly said to the procedure and House affairs committee, which is studying alleged foreign election interference in the 2019 and 2021 general election.

"It is the right thing to do."

Facing a barrage of questions from opposition members of Parliament, Joly laid out the tools the Canadian government is using to combat foreign interference in response to questions about recent allegations of Chinese meddling.

She told MPs that it's easier to keep people from engaging in foreign interference by blocking them from coming into the country, rather than monitoring them when they are already in Canada.

But she said diplomats operating in Canada can also be expelled if there is evidence under the Vienna Convention — a United Nations code governing international diplomacy — that they engaged in interference.

"If we have any form of clear evidence of wrongdoing, we'll send diplomats packing very, very, very quickly," she said.

Amid criticism from Conservative MPs over the fact that Canada has not expelled any such actors, Joly said her political opponents are looking for an "easy fix" that would prompt the retaliatory expelling of Canadian diplomats from China and could endanger Canadians who live overseas.

Joly said Canadian diplomats were crucial to bringing home Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in September 2021 after they were detained by China for more than 1,000 days.

"More than ever, we need capacity. We need eyes and ears on the ground. We need to be able to address national interests we have in our bilateral relationship. And I'm extremely concerned about the protections of Canadians abroad," the minister said.

"We need to engage to protect these people. It's something that keeps me up at night, and that's why we have capacity in Beijing."

Joly echoed comments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is facing intense scrutiny over the issue of foreign interference and has responded by accusing Conservatives of politicizing national security.

"When you fall into too much partisanship, we're falling into China's trap," she said.

A committee of parliamentarians that oversees national security said Wednesday that it has begun a study of foreign interference following Trudeau's request earlier this week.

In a statement, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians said it will examine the state of foreign interference in Canada's democratic processes since 2018.

That will continue the work done in its previous review of the government's response to foreign interference, which covered the period from 2015 to 2018.

The committee said it will also consider the independent report by former public servant Morris Rosenberg on the federal protocol for monitoring foreign interference attempts during the last general election.

The committee, chaired by Liberal MP David McGuinty, plans to consult other review bodies to avoid duplication as it develops its terms of reference for the latest review.

“Foreign interference and influence have been identified as significant threats to the rights and freedoms of Canadians and Canadian society," McGuinty said in the statement.

"The committee recognizes the importance of preserving the integrity of our institutions, and looks forward to building upon its previous review of the government’s response to foreign interference."

Earlier this week, Trudeau urged the committee and another spy watchdog, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, to look into foreign interference in light of recent concerns about possible Chinese meddling in the last two federal elections.

The government also plans to appoint an "eminent Canadian" with a broad mandate on the issue. The independent rapporteur will be responsible for informing the work of NSIRA and NSICOP and any other existing processes and investigations that may be carried out by bodies like Canada’s Commissioner of Elections.

The rapporteur will make public recommendations, which could include a formal inquiry or some other independent review process, and the government said it will abide by the guidance.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2023.

Mickey Djuric and Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press