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Former Canadian envoys to China urge Ottawa to launch foreign agent registry

OTTAWA — Two of Canada's former envoys to China say Ottawa is enabling foreign interference on Canadian soil by not launching a registry to track those acting on behalf of other countries.
David Mulroney, Canada's then-ambassador to China, testifies in the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009. Two of Canada's former envoys to China say Ottawa is enabling foreign interference by not launching a registry of those acting on behalf of other countries. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Pawel Dwulit

OTTAWA — Two of Canada's former envoys to China say Ottawa is enabling foreign interference on Canadian soil by not launching a registry to track those acting on behalf of other countries.

"China is the primary threat when it comes to foreign interference in Canada," former ambassador to China David Mulroney told the House of Commons procedure committee Tuesday.

"The longer we delay, the more difficult the task becomes."

He was speaking as part of the committee's study into allegations that China's Toronto consulate tried to influence the 2019 federal election.

Global News reported last November that senior officials had briefed Trudeau about a "vast campaign of foreign interference" allegedly waged by China’s consulate in Toronto.

The allegations, which The Canadian Press has not verified, involve the Chinese Communist Party flowing funds to a pro-Beijing network in Canada that included at least 11 Liberal and Conservative candidates who ran in that election.

The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa insists that it does not interfere in Canadian politics, and instead accuses Canada of interfering in Beijing's internal matters by claiming China undermines international trade and human rights.

Two months ago, the Liberals promised to eventually launch consultations on a foreign agent registry, which would require people to publicly report when they are doing paid work on behalf of another state, under threat of fines or jail time.

But Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino warned on Monday that such a database must be carefully considered, as it could stigmatize communities who have felt targeted by security agencies in the past.

"There is a historical context when it comes to some communities within this country and their relationship with (security) agencies and the law-enforcement community," Mendicino told the House committee on Canada-China relations Monday.

"We need agencies to be inclusive, diverse, culturally sensitive," Mendicino said, adding that Ottawa is taking the idea of a registry to its own advisory panels before soliciting public input.

A day later, Mulroney said he was "discouraged" by those comments, saying it's diaspora groups, such as Uyghurs, Falun Gong practitioners and people from Hong Kong, who are most commonly targeted by Chinese agents.

He claimed that Chinese agents threaten activists that their families back home will suffer, and accused Ottawa of "not acting, and finding reasons not to act" on a registry.

Mulroney urged the Liberals to commit to a registry and then proceed to consultations on how to launch one without stigmatizing groups.

"The very fact that you announce that you're doing it already sends a message to the Chinese, a very important message (that) we are not sending," he said.

He called Canada "the path of least resistance" among its intelligence allies, because it does not track activities of diplomatic missions and punish bad behaviour.

"We must be prepared to expel Chinese diplomats involved in interference or harassment. Our failure to do so only encourages increasingly brazen meddling," Mulroney said.

"This will trigger retaliation, but we must make it clear that expulsion is the inevitable consequence of such hostile behaviour."

Charles Burton, a former diplomat posted in China, added that the registry should be communicated as being directed at the broad issue of interference, instead of the meddling of just one country.

Burton argued that Canada's mechanism to prevent interference in elections is not sufficient, as it only focuses on whether there was an effect on the results.

He said Canada is a laggard in providing information on attempted interference, and in probing disinformation that appears on social media in languages like Chinese.

"We don't have the capability within the Canadian system to deal with activities in the diaspora community that could affect election results improperly," he testified.

Burton added that multiple former politicians in Australia left corporate boards when that country enacted its foreign agent registry.

Meanwhile, Liberal MP Jennifer O'Connell said parliamentarians don't know how to spot and report being targets of foreign agents. "There is really little to no briefings or training for MPs on how to even deal with that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press