Canada’s spy agency for the first time is warning individual MPs and senators from all major parties about influence operations being carried out by China and other adversarial states.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has become increasingly alarmed about efforts by China and its agents of influence to covertly cultivate relations with elected officials to gain sway over parliamentary debates and government decision-making.
John Townsend, a spokesperson for CSIS, told The Globe and Mail agency officials are briefing parliamentarians, telling them to beware of foreign influence and interference operations.
“CSIS actively investigates threats that are carried out in a clandestine or deceptive manner or involve a threat to any person,” Mr. Townsend said when asked about the briefings.
“CSIS delivers these briefings in order to promote awareness of foreign interference and the actions of other hostile actors and to strengthen individual security practices and protect Canadians and their interests.”
Mr. Townsend declined to say whom CSIS has briefed, but a senior government official said on background that the spy agency has a list of MPs and senators it believes should be aware of Chinese influence operations.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said CSIS officials warned him in a briefing about subversive and coercive foreign interference operations that take place on Canadian soil, including efforts to influence MPs.
“It certainly was in reference to China,” he said. However, the MP noted the officials also discussed threats from Iran after he raised concerns. They also told him to be aware of how China uses proxies or business lobbyists.
“Foreign governments try to influence others all the time but [CSIS] spoke about illegitimate forms such as coercion, subversion and disinformation,” he said, adding that it is the first time the agency has done such briefings with individual Parlimentarians.
“This is very welcome development. For too long, Parliament has been shielded from Canada’s security and intelligence activities,” he said.
A source said CSIS officials asked MPs to alert them of any suspicious activity, and provided the politicians with names and contact information of agents handling foreign interference operations in Canada. The Globe is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to discuss security matters.
Vancouver NDP MP Jenny Kwan, a critic of Beijing’s crackdown in the former British colony of Hong Kong, was also briefed before and after the 2021 election. She said the conversation was principally focused on China.
“The briefing touched on a range of issues on how interference could occur and examples of those possibilities and to ensure we are alerted,” she said, but cautioned much of it was confidential. “When CSIS has such concerns … it is useful for all parliamentarians to be informed of that.”
Akshay Singh, a research fellow with the Council on International Policy, said political interference in Canada by foreign states may intensify during election campaigns, but it’s a constant threat.
Last summer, a month before the federal election campaign was called, CSIS released a primer on foreign interference that included details on the ways hostile actors try to manipulate Canadians. It said this is different from “normal diplomatic conduct” in that it’s clandestine or deceptive and includes efforts such as exploitative relationships, gifts, free travel, blackmail, bribes, disinformation, cyber attacks and espionage.
“We’re dealing with increased hostile state activity targeting our democratic system, and it’s critical for organizations such as CSIS and the Communications Security Establishment to raise awareness of how hostile state actors conduct the threat activity, how they interfere in Canadian democracy and how to prepare them for it,” Mr. Singh said.
The July, 2021, CSIS report said foreign state actors that it did not identify are seeking to cultivate relationships with politicians and their staff to covertly obtain information. In other instances, hostile states attempt to gain leverage over politicians that “can be used to pressure the individual into influencing debate and decision-making within government.”
The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians issued two reports in 2019 and 2020 calling on the federal government to develop a public foreign interference strategy.
The committee of MPs and senators, which has access to classified intelligence, identified China and Russia as the “primary culprits” in “significant and sustained” interference operations in Canada. Political targets are members of the Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic parties, it said.
“This targeting occurs regardless of an official’s status in government or opposition,” the committee reported in 2019. It said they seek leverage over officials and use it to enhance their interests.
In other instances, the committee said, they mobilize third parties such as proxies and lobby groups to carry out interference operations. They also seek to “interfere with policy actions by attempting to discredit or attack public officials.”
The committee noted that China is also known to harass and intimidate critics of Beijing, particularly in the Canadian-Chinese community. As well, China attempts to control Chinese-language media, “thereby undermining the free and independent media in Canada.”
“They target ethnocultural communities, seek to corrupt the political process, manipulate the media, and attempt to curate debate on postsecondary campuses,” the committee said.
In Canada as elsewhere, Chinese diplomats and agents of the United Front, which is in charge of burnishing China’s image abroad and managing the Chinese diaspora, are active in the Chinese-Canadian community and student associations, including the establishment of Confucius Institutes at universities that offer language instruction but are accused of reinforcing Beijing’s positions on issues.
McGill University researchers Sze-Fung Lee and Benjamin Fung this month published an article saying a disinformation campaign against a Conservative Party candidate during the 2021 election demonstrates how hostile foreign actors could use propaganda tactics to interfere with Canada’s political system. And they suggest a public registry to track foreign influence could discourage future disinformation efforts. Former B.C. MP Kenny Chiu proposed a similar mechanism during the campaign.
Mr. Chiu’s proposal was condemned on Chinese-language social media, with claims it would “suppress the Chinese community” in Canada. The comments were disseminated on apps and websites widely used by Canadians of Chinese origin, who make up about half of his riding’s population. The Conservatives believe the MP lost his seat because of disinformation attacks.
Mr. Chiu’s proposal is not without precedent. Canada’s security and intelligence committee of parliamentarians noted in a 2019 report that Australia’s foreign-influence transparency registry was set up in 2018 to track work being done by foreign governments and state-owned enterprises and individuals or political organizations affiliated with other countries. The U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act has been in effect since 1938, and Britain is considering a similar registry.
Australia has also established a national counter foreign interference co-ordinator to lead responses to foreign interference.
For subscribers only: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.