Asked this week about the need for Ottawa to create a foreign influence registry, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the internment of Japanese-Canadians in the Second World War and warned against the dangers of creating “registries of foreigners in Canada.”
The one thing has nothing to do with the other, as we will show. So the question becomes, why is Mr. Trudeau sowing confusion about a registry that exists in the United States and Australia, and which, somehow, has not led to the mass incarceration of citizens in those countries?
That question is made more pressing by the fact the FBI this week arrested two men in New York City accused of operating one of Beijing’s notorious overseas police stations, in which members of the Chinese diaspora are harassed and intimidated by Chinese state security personnel.
One of the charges each of the two men face stems from the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires anyone acting on behalf of a foreign government in the U.S. to register with the Department of Justice.
In a twist that directly affects Canada, the FBI says the smartphone belonging to one of the men contained photographs of opening ceremonies for similar operations in other countries, this one included.
The RCMP has been investigating reports of at least three illegal Chinese police stations in Canada since last year but has made no arrests.
If Canada had a version of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, it’s reasonable to believe the RCMP would have something to hang charges on against the operators of these sordid outposts.
And if such a law did exist here, it would be easy for any politician willing to do so to allay fears that it would target innocent people.
That’s because the law as it exists in the U.S., and as it was proposed in a private member’s bill in 2021 that died on the order paper, is not a registry of foreigners, as Mr. Trudeau weirdly put it. The notion of such a registry does indeed invoke fears of past wrongs.
But that is simply not what a foreign agents, or foreign influence, registry does. It is akin to a lobbying registry, in that it obliges anyone who seeks to influence public officials on behalf of a foreign government or a foreign state-owned company to register with the government.
Lobbying public officials on behalf of a foreign government is legal under normal circumstances. The 2021 private member’s bill law exempted diplomats, consular staff and other official representative of a foreign government. The U.S. law does the same, and also exempts people in bona fide commercial activities, humanitarian fundraising, and religious, scholastic, academic, fine arts, or scientific pursuits.
Neither the 2021 Canadian bill nor the U.S. law bases the requirement to register on country of origin, ethnicity or civil society affiliations.
It is in the U.S., and would be in Canada, a law that requires any person of any origin who acts on behalf of a foreign government while lobbying public officials to register with the government. That is all.
In the U.S., failure to register can lead to a maximum sentence of five years and a maximum fine of US$250,000. In the private member’s bill, the proposed maximum sentence was two years and the maximum fine was $200,000.
Funny thing about that bill: It was tabled by Kenny Chiu, a former Conservative MP from British Columbia who was targeted by Beijing operatives in the 2021 federal election and wound up losing his seat.
Researchers at McGill University and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab documented how China-linked actors spread disinformation during the election that was targeted at the Chinese diaspora in Mr. Chiu’s riding.
Among the misinformation was the claim that Mr. Chiu’s proposed foreign influence registry would lead to the “widespread suppression and monitoring of the Chinese community in Canada,” according to the Atlantic Council report.
For some reason, Mr. Trudeau, who still hasn’t definitively committed to creating a foreign influence registry, is raising similarly misleading concerns.
What he should be saying, because it’s true, is that such a registry could be a tool for stopping Beijing from harassing people in Canada, as the American version appears to have been in the United States. So why isn’t he?