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David McGuinty, chair of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, speaks during a new conference in Ottawa, on March 12, 2020.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

A special committee of parliamentarians with access to sensitive intelligence briefings is warning that China and Russia are increasingly conducting “significant and sustained” foreign interference activities in Canada and trying to influence politicians, academics, students and the media.

In a report tabled Thursday, the all-party National Intelligence and Security Committee outlined specific areas where Beijing and Moscow are threatening the country’s sovereignty and security as they try to influence government decision-making at all levels, from Ottawa to municipalities.

“The threat is real, if often hidden,” the report said. “The perpetrators have become more brazen and their activities more entrenched.”

The committee also criticized this country’s response. “Canada has been slow to react to the threat of foreign interference.”

Members of Parliament and senators on this body were granted a high-security clearance to gain access to confidential security reports and briefings. Some key parts of their report were redacted.

“These states target Canada for a variety of reasons, but all seek to exploit the openness of our society and penetrate our fundamental institutions to meet their objectives,” David McGuinty, a Liberal MP who chairs the committee, said, reading from the report, which identified only two countries, China and Russia, by name.

The body called for a “whole of government approach” to fighting this meddling, saying if foreign interference is left unchecked, it will “slowly erode the foundations of our fundamental institutions including our democracy itself.”

The Chinese and Russian embassies did not immediately comment.

The committee paid particular attention to the activities of China, saying it’s conducting "clandestine and coercive measures” that target and threaten individuals around the globe, including those living in Canada. China’s National Intelligence Law compels Chinese citizens, even if they are citizens of other countries, to co-operate with Beijing’s intelligence-gathering agencies, it noted.

“Foreign interference activities are targeted at three key areas: the electoral process at all stages, elected officials and their staff; and sub-national areas of government,” the report said.

There is also growing concern among Canadian security agencies about the relationships between overseas Chinese student associations on campuses and China’s embassies and consulates, the committee said, noting reports of “growing ideological pressure” from Chinese diplomats to toe the party line.

“[Their] behavior may also pose a threat to freedom of speech and assembly,” the report said of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations on campuses.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia manipulate mainstream media and “ethnic media” in Canada to push their messages, the committee said.

There are approximately 650 publications and 120 radio and TV programs in Canada that are published or broadcast in languages other than English and French; some of these are “heavily influenced and manipulated, either unwittingly or wittingly" by foreign states, the report said.

“The PRC is seeking to harmonize international Chinese-language media with its own by attempting to merge the editorial boards of those outlets with PRC media,” the report said. “This would result in the PRC controlling the message in Chinese-language media, thereby undermining the free and independent media in this country.”

Canada is a prized target “due to its global standing, robust and diverse economy, large ethnocultural communities, membership in key multilateral organizations such as the Five Eyes [intelligence-sharing group], G7 and NATO and close relationship with the United States," the body said.

On Russia, the committee said that some of Moscow’s intelligence officers “under diplomatic cover, have engaged in threat-related activities."

Wenran Jiang, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, said the report raises serious concerns if the allegations it makes are “proven to be the case.”

But he warned against any suggestion that overseas Chinese communities are the tool of the PRC. “The generalization that somehow the PRC government, its embassies and consulates can control, and do control overseas Chinese behaviour is an insult to millions of overseas Chinese, be they PRC citizens or foreign citizens of Chinese origin,” Mr. Jiang said.

“Canada must be vigilant in defending itself against any foreign interference in its internal affairs, especially from non-democratic states, but at the same time, we must be aware of the growing sinophobia and not descend into racial profiling and McCarthyism.”