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Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue makes her way on stage to deliver remarks on the interim report following its release at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, in Ottawa, on May 3.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The federal government unveiled legislation Monday to combat foreign interference by creating a mandatory registry for people undertaking “influence activity” in politics or government on behalf of foreign powers and giving Canada’s top spy agency more authority to combat threats.

The Countering Foreign Interference Act would also create new foreign-interference criminal offences, including political interference.

It would make it easier to prosecute anyone who tries to coerce someone with intimidation or threats on behalf of a foreign entity or terrorist group. This would include, the government said in a statement, “an individual in Canada working on behalf of a foreign state threatening to harm relatives of a Canadian citizen who live in the foreign state.”

The omnibus bill was released days after the Hogue inquiry into foreign interference released its first report Friday, saying meddling in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections undermined the right of Canadian voters to have an electoral process “free from coercion or covert influence” and may have affected results in a small number of ridings.

The acts of foreign interference that occurred, or are suspected to have occurred, “are a stain on our electoral process and impacted the process leading up to the actual vote,” Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue wrote.

However, it’s uncertain whether the centrepiece measure in the new legislation, a foreign-agent registry, will be in place by the next federal election. The government said Monday it expects a one-year delay between passage of this bill and the establishment of the registry. The next ballot must be held by October, 2025.

The legislation, called Bill C-70, also creates a Foreign Influence Transparency Commissioner who would hold office for up to seven years, to be appointed after consultation with leaders in the House of Commons and Senate.

This office, which would have the same investigative powers as a Superior Court, would oversee a mandatory registry requiring people who conduct influence activity for foreign entities in provincial or federal politics and governments to register. It would also apply to influence activities aimed at Indigenous governments or councils and “any entity that represents the interests of First Nations, the Inuit or Métis.”

Registrable activities would include communication with a public office-holder, communication of information to the public, or disbursement of money or items of value, the government said in a presentation distributed to media Monday.

Foreign clients would include foreign states, “foreign economic entities” and “foreign entities.” Foreign diplomats would be exempt from the requirement to register their activities.

A guide to foreign interference and China’s suspected influence in Canada

The registry would not exempt influence activities on behalf of any countries, including Canada’s allies.

“There is a growing consensus in Canada and among its allies that foreign influence registries are a necessary tool to lessen foreign interference in the affairs of sovereign states,” the legislation says.

To have the foreign-influence registry in place before the next federal election, the government would likely have to pass the bill before the House rises for the summer next month. Despite the ambitious timeline, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc insisted at a press conference that it was possible.

He said the bill would allow Canada’s spy agency to be more agile and ensure more transparency and information sharing with the public.

“A resilient and informed population is our best defence against foreign interference,” Mr. LeBlanc said.

There would be monetary penalties for those who avoid their registration obligations as well as criminal penalties for failing to meet the requirements of the law, or providing false information. The legislation says Ottawa will set administrative penalties later but also said convictions for certain offences under the law could include fines of up to $200,000 for some categories and up to $5-million for others.

The omnibus bill follows revelations from the foreign-interference inquiry, after months of reporting by The Globe and Mail and other media on Chinese foreign interference and disinformation campaigns, drawing on confidential national-security sources and secret documents.

Justice Hogue’s report on Friday issued a call to action for the government to vigorously enact measures to tackle this “malign” threat to Canadian democracy. She identified China as the “most persistent and sophisticated foreign interference threat to Canada.”

Justice Hogue warned in her 193-page report that foreign interference undermines trust in the electoral system and discourages diaspora communities from participating in Canadian democracy.

“The government must re-establish this trust by informing the public of the threat of foreign interference, and by taking real concrete steps to detect, deter and counter it,” she wrote.

Justice Minister Arif Virani said Monday that amendments to the Security of Information Act will ensure “covert hostile activities are fully addressed” by criminal law. “For example, this could include someone who knowingly facilitates the entry into Canada of agents of a foreign-interest entity who are posing as merely tourists,” he told reporters.

He said Canada is following similar actions by allies Australia and Britain. Once Canada sets up a foreign-influence registry, four of the Five Eyes allies will have similar mechanisms in place.

The legislation would also give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service authority to disclose more information to universities, provinces and municipalities to help combat foreign interference.

CSIS’s governing legislation as currently written prevents it from speaking frankly to academic institutions or other levels of governments about the threats they face.

Dan Stanton, a former senior manager at CSIS, said this would change under the new bill.

“The government has enlarged the disclosure regime for CSIS so they can pass intelligence on to non-traditional recipients,” said Mr. Stanton, now national-security program director at the University of Ottawa. “That’s significant because it strengthens their hand in investigations and will lead to more transparency from CSIS.”

Other measures in the legislation are not exclusively targeted at foreign interference, including a new sabotage offence focused on harm directed at “essential infrastructure.” This could potentially include cyberattacks – such as Russian hacking of Canada’s natural-gas infrastructure – or harming physical infrastructure. It makes this an indictable offence with up to 10 years in jail for people who render essential infrastructure inoperable or unfit for use and who had the intent of endangering the “safety, security or defence of Canada” or its military or allied militaries, or causing “a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or any segment of the public.”

The legislation would clarify that the sabotage offence would not apply to protests “where there is no intent to cause the serious harms specified.”

Stephanie Carvin, a former national-security analyst and associate professor at Carleton University, called Bill C-70 “arguably the most significant attempt at updating Canada’s national-security laws since 1984.”

The legislation not only creates a foreign-influence registry but also modernizes the law around sabotage, she noted. “This is really important given warnings from Europe this week about sabotage attacks by Russia, and concerns from Britain, the United States and Canada last week about cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.”

Dr. Carvin said the foreign registry will be a “paper tiger” if it’s not given adequate staffing and resources.

She said while Ottawa frames this package as responding to foreign interference, it would give CSIS authority the agency has been been seeking for a decade.

“While this grants a lot of what the intelligence community has asked for, they now have to deliver. They will have to make difficult decisions about what information to share and how to share it.”

She said oversight bodies will have to decide how to monitor CSIS conduct under new powers.

Opposition parties described the government’s changes Monday as long-overdue steps to better protect Canadians from foreign interference.

“Conservatives have called on Justin Trudeau to implement a foreign influence registry for years. Instead of protecting Canadians and diaspora communities, he blocked, delayed, and obstructed a foreign influence registry at every turn,” Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s spokesperson Sebastian Skamski said in a statement.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian said in a statement that the blame falls on both Conservatives and Liberals, who “failed to treat these threats with the urgency required” while in government.

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