There is no indication the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship consulted federal security agencies before approving an arrangement for a company owned by the Chinese police to manage Canada’s visa application centre in Beijing, MPs heard on Thursday.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and heads of Canadian security agencies, including Shelly Bruce of the Communications Security Establishment, were asked at a Parliamentary committee meeting on Thursday whether their guidance was sought on the contract.
The Globe has reported that Canada’s visa-application centre in Beijing is operated by Beijing Shuangxiong Foreign Service Co., which is owned by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau. At least some of the people working at the centre are members of the Chinese Communist Party, recruited from a school that trains the next generation of party elite.
Beijing Shuangxiong is a subcontractor for VFS Global, a company headquartered in Zurich and Dubai that has a contract to provide visa-processing services around the world for the Canadian government.
Visa offices collect personal and biometric information that is forwarded to Canadian immigration officials for decisions on who will be granted visas.
Bloc Québécois foreign affairs critic Stéphane Bergeron asked Mr. Blair at the Commons committee on Canada-China relations how the Canadian government could guarantee the information submitted through the Beijing visa office is “not being used by the government of the People’s Republic of China” to keep tabs on possible dissidents who want to leave the country.
Mr. Blair said the Immigration department has assured him no personal information is stored in China and there are safeguards to ensure it is securely transmitted to Canada.
He then referred the question to the CSE’s Ms. Bruce. She told the committee she couldn’t offer any insight, saying Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada handled it. ”This is a service that has been procured by the IRCC. We are available to provide advice and guidance on how to protect systems and that is available upon request.”
Mr. Bergeron said he found it “revealing” that Ms. Bruce had replied that her organization was not called upon to give an opinion on that.
NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris asked Mr. Blair what agency pre-approved the arrangement to hire the company owned by the Chinese police in Beijing. “You told us the full measure of the mandate of all these agencies is applied to protect Canadians. So which agency approved this arrangement that you’re defending at the moment?”
Mr. Blair said the contract was awarded 12 years ago, which makes it hard to answer questions about who authorized it. He said he can only assume normal security practices were followed.
Mr. Harris asked the Public Safety Minister if he was satisfied the Beijing visa centre is secure.
Mr. Blair said the Immigration department tells him it is secure. “They have an IT [information technology] specialist department that provided assurance that the information is in fact secure.”
Pressed on whether he was satisfied with the Beijing visa office arrangement, Mr. Blair replied: “I am satisfied that IRCC has not identified any concerns and they have provided strong assurances that … data and Canadian interests are well protected in the system they have in place.”
Later, Mr. Bergeron asked Ms. Bruce and the heads of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP whether they advised the government on security measures at the visa centres to prevent the information from being communicated to the Chinese government.
After a long pause, Mr. Blair’s deputy minister, Rob Stewart, said it is up to the Immigration department to explain how the security of its contract and systems is assured.
Mr. Bergeron said it is very “concerning” that the government allows departments and agencies to contract out freely and “take care of the security measures without referring to federal agencies responsible for national security and intelligence.”
Earlier this week, the Canadian government said it did not know the Beijing police owned the subcontractor, adding that Ottawa does not usually scrutinize such information in awarding contracts.
The department of Public Services and Procurement Canada was “not aware of their corporate ownership structure and whether or not it was owned by the Beijing public security bureau,” spokesperson Stéfanie Hamel said in a statement.
VFS has said the Canadian visa application centres in China “operate according to the same tough security standards we employ around the world” and that the Chinese companies that manage the local facilities do not “set up or have access to our IT systems.”
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