Government pitches foreign influence registry, new powers for CSIS in attempt to curb foreign interference

Bill C-70 introduces new foreign interference offences.  (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press - image credit)
Bill C-70 introduces new foreign interference offences. (Martin Mejia/The Associated Press - image credit)

The federal government unveiled a long-anticipated bill Monday aimed at curbing foreign interference in Canadian political life — from school boards to the House of Commons.

If passed, the bill would introduce new foreign interference offence, shake up how Canada's spy agency collects and shares intelligence and launch a long-anticipated foreign influence transparency registry.

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc tabled Bill C-70 just days after a public inquiry said attempts by other countries to meddle in Canada's past two federal elections undermined Canadians' trust in democracy.

The bill would make it an indictable offence under the Security of Information Act  — punishable by up to life in prison —  for anyone to, at the direction of a foreign entity, engage in "surreptitious or deceptive conduct" to influence a political or governmental process, which includes party nomination contests.

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Party nominations have been flagged as a source of concern by the ongoing public inquiry into foreign interference. In her first report, released Friday, Justice Marie-Josée Hogue (who is leading the inquiry) said she could not rule out the possibility that China interfered in the 2019 Liberal nomination contest for the riding of Don Valley North.

The bill also would make it an offence for a foreign entity or proxy to try to influence a school's governance — which the legislation defines as anything from a school board up to universities and other higher learning institutions.

The act also proposes updating the Criminal Code to prevent sabotage attacks on critical infrastructure. It would also amend the Security of Information Act to cover the inappropriate sharing of military technology and knowledge.

Former Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Ward Elcock said creating new offences gives Canada a shot at prosecutions.

"In the past, even if you found out, there's nothing to do about it, they're not committing a criminal act," he told CBC's Power & Politics.

CSIS would be able to disclose more information

CSIS has long called for new powers and the ability to share information with targets of foreign interference apart from the federal government, such as researchers, businesses, Indigenous communities and local governments.

Bill C-70 would allow CSIS to disclose sensitive information beyond the federal government in the interest of building up resiliency against foreign interference.

"A resilient and informed population is our best defence against foreign interference," said LeBlanc.

That portion of the legislation received almost immediate praise from the Business Council of Canada.

"Despite CSIS possessing the knowledge and expertise to help Canadian companies withstand growing security threats, CSIS' outdated legislation means that business leaders are left fending for themselves," said council president Goldy Hyder.

"With new threat intelligence sharing authorities, CSIS could communicate more specific and tangible information with Canadian companies. This would give business leaders a clearer understanding of the growing threat, as well as the protective measures that could be taken to better safeguard their employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate."

Elcock said he isn't convinced the changes will make life easier for the spy agency — which still has to juggle active investigations.

"It will be more challenging for the service because it will have to take some decisions about what information it shares and doesn't share,"he said.

"There's the potential to create problems in an investigation by sharing too much."

WATCH |  New bill updates sabotage provisions in the Criminal Code

A core part of the bill would require those acting on behalf of foreign states to influence Canadian politics or government to register with the federal government. Such foreign agent registries are in place in the U.S. and Australia.

Those caught violating the rules of the proposed new foreign influence transparency registry could risk millions of dollars in financial penalties and prison time. Diplomats would be exempt under international law.

Monday's bill proposes appointing a foreign influence transparency commissioner in charge of overseeing a new registry system.

Registry not a panacea, says activist 

The registry has been a long time coming for people like Gloria Fung, president of Canada-Hong Kong Link — even if she doesn't think it's a perfect solution.

The activist said she's faced death threats for speaking out against the Chinese government.

"I have also been constantly warned by anonymous callers not to interfere with the Hong Kong or China issues, even though I'm now a proud Canadian," she said. "The registry is not a panacea. It is an important first stop to combat foreign interference."

The Liberals are also proposing changes to close what it calls "gaps" in the way CSIS collects, retains and uses data on Canadians.

The government says in background documents it is pitching the changes so "CSIS can successfully operate in a digital world," but the changes will likely attract scrutiny from civil liberty groups in the coming days and weeks.

The bill arrives just days after the public inquiry investigating foreign meddling issued its first report, which found foreign interference "undermined the right of voters to have an electoral ecosystem free from coercion or covert influence."

Hogue stressed that foreign interference attempts from China, India, Russia and others did not affect which political party formed the government in the 2019 and 2021 general elections.

Hogue said none of the evidence she's heard to date suggests officials acted in "bad faith" or that information was deliberately and improperly withheld.

"But it does suggest that on some occasions, information related to foreign interference did not reach its intended recipient, while on others the information was not properly understood by those who received it," she wrote.

"These are serious issues that need to be investigated and considered."

WATCH | Former CSIS director weighs in on new bill