Facing parliamentary pressure to stand up to Beijing’s use of covert agents to target Canadians, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne says Ottawa is planning new measures to crack down on these kinds of intimidation tactics.
Mr. Champagne made the commitment Tuesday during a House of Commons debate over a Conservative motion that calls on the government to come up with a comprehensive plan within 30 days to stop Chinese Communist Party interference in Canada. The motion also calls for Ottawa to announce a decision on whether equipment from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. will be allowed to be used in this country’s 5G networks.
The debate in Parliament comes one week after the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told The Globe and Mail 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.
Mr. Champagne told the House that the threat of foreign interference is taken “very, very seriously” by the government and its security agencies.
“All our agencies are seized [with] this issue,” he said. “The Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness will come soon with additional measures to protect the safety and security of Canadians.”
However, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair made no such commitment when asked about Mr. Champagne’s comments during Question Period.
Instead, he said law-enforcement agencies are actively taking steps to protect Canadians from the threat of foreign interference.
“Our security and intelligence community, including CSIS and the RCMP, are actively investigating threats of foreign interference and espionage and where the evidence exists, they will take action,” he said. “In addition to that, Mr. Speaker, we have undertaken a significant outreach campaign to sensitize Canadians and Canadian companies and other stakeholders involved in this activity or subject to this activity.”
Mr. Blair’s office was asked by The Globe to clarify Mr. Champagne’s promise of new actions to combat foreign interference.
A statement provided by press secretary Mary-Liz Power did not speak about new measures but urged Canadians to call law enforcement if they feel threatened.
"In instances where this threat rises to a level where members of these communities are concerned for their personal safety and security, it is essential that they report this information to local law-enforcement agencies for their action.
Mr. Champagne’s spokesperson Syrine Khoury had no further comment.
A report from Amnesty International Canada and other groups earlier this year, however, said Ottawa’s response to rising complaints about the bullying has been hapless, muddled and ineffective. They have documented harassment against Hong Kong Canadians, Uyghur Canadians and Tibetan Canadians, among others.
Mr. Champagne has also promised to release a new framework for Canada-China relations before the end of the year, although senior officials in government have played down the significance of the rethink.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take action now, saying Canadians need to be protected when they speak out against human–rights abuses carried out by China.
“When Australia realized they had a problem with infiltration from Chinese agents, they did something about it. They stopped infiltration on campuses, in business and academia,” Mr. O’Toole told MPs. “Chinese agents threatening Canadians on our soil, and all this Prime Minister has to say is [that] it is inappropriate.”
Mr. Trudeau, who last week called China’s actions unacceptable, replied that Canadian security agencies work every single day to protect all Canadians from foreign influence.
During the Commons debate, NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said his party supports the Conservative motion, which will be voted on Wednesday.
Mr. Harris said witnesses appearing before the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations have noted that CSIS lacks necessary enforcement powers and the RCMP, at the local level, are ill-informed about how to combat the intimidation tactics of Chinese agents.
“We support the notion of seeing the government lay out a plan, and lay it out quickly, so that people can be assured that government is prepared to respond in a positive and necessary way to the kind of intimidation and interference that we are seeing,” he said.
Mr. Harris said the NDP also supports the Conservatives call for the government to ban Huawei from selling its 5G gear to Canadian telecoms.
“If we become overwhelmed and dominated by the Huawei enterprise system, then we are vulnerable to its control over the future of communications and technology to a large degree within Canada,” he said.
A government cybersecurity study of Huawei’s 5G equipment has been going on for two years, even though many of Canada’s allies, including the United States, Britain and Australia, have taken steps to ban the Chinese telecom because of national-security concerns.
“It is long past time for the government to make a decision on Huawei,” Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said.
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