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Eight foreigners suspected of espionage, subversion or terrorism were removed from Canada last year, according to the federal government.

The department of Public Safety would not reveal the countries that the individuals were acting on behalf of, citing privacy laws, nor the specific nature of their activities in Canada.

“However, we can tell you that in 2020, the CBSA [Canada Border Services Agency] removed eight individuals deemed inadmissible on security grounds,” Public Safety spokesman Tim Warmington said in a statement. “Removal on security grounds may include persons who are found inadmissible for espionage, subversion, terrorism and/or for membership in groups involved in such activities.”

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Outsourcing our foreign intelligence gathering puts Canadians at risk

China puts Michael Kovrig on trial for spying

The Globe and Mail had asked the government how many foreigners were expelled for espionage in 2020 after Australia’s spy director, Mike Burgess, revealed last week that his country had removed or rendered inoperative a “significant number” of foreign spies in 2020.

“I’m talking about a number in the double figures,” Mr. Burgess told Australian news media.

Mr. Warmington said Public Safety “cannot give information regarding specific removals, including confirming or denying if a specific person has been removed.”

Andy Ellis, a former assistant director of operations at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said that in his experience, the nationalities of individuals removed for espionage tended to be Iranian, Chinese, Russian or Pakistani.

“But I’ve seen North Koreans. I’ve seen others as well. Ones [whose nationality] you would be very surprised at,” he said.

Mr. Ellis said there were times where intelligence officials would want foreigners admitted who might otherwise be rejected so they could try to recruit them. But proposals such as that would encounter significant resistance inside government.

Richard Fadden, a former CSIS director who served as national-security adviser to two prime ministers, said that it’s very difficult to counter espionage and foreign interference in Canada because this country is an open society that doesn’t have massive resources to devote to this.

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“One of the difficulties in dealing with espionage and foreign influence is these usually rate a lower priority than something like terrorism where the damage is immediate and visible.” Second, he said, it’s hard to prove people’s conduct amounts to espionage and foreign influence.

Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, who was previously a national-security analyst in the federal government, said that over the years there has likely been a significantly larger pool of foreigners who merit removal on the same grounds. But, she noted, Canada is not allowed to deport people back to countries with poor human-rights records.

This past November, CSIS told The Globe that national security and the safety of Canadians are being jeopardized by undercover Chinese state-security officials and others who are trying to silence critics using tactics that include threats of retribution against their families in China.

CSIS said these illegal activities are part of a global campaign of intimidation. One of the most high-profile efforts is Operation Fox Hunt, directed by Beijing’s Ministry of Public Safety, which has been under way since 2014. It is supposed to go after corrupt Chinese officials and business people but is used to target dissidents and critics of President Xi Jinping.

In a speech to the Centre for International Governance Innovation in February, CSIS director David Vigneault warned that Beijing’s military and intelligence services have been gathering sensitive data on Canadians, are stealing key technology and attempting to intimidate Canadians from mainland China.

Mr. Vigneault said a “number of foreign states engage in hostile actions that routinely threaten and intimidate individuals in Canada to instill fear, silence dissent and pressure political opponents.”

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Last year, CSIS also warned Canadian researchers and corporations that agents of foreign governments are targeting developments of vaccines for COVID-19. The agency did not identify countries but the FBI has accused China and Russia of seeking to obtain valuable intellectual property.

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