The federal government should work to develop and pass legislation that strengthens Canada against foreign interference this year rather than wait for investigations — including any potential public inquiry — to play out first, former top public servants say.
But transparency in all of that will be “essential” to restoring Canadians’ trust in their democratic institutions amid mounting allegations of attempts at foreign interference.
“The government could commit to table a bill … before the summer break and our politicians could debate it, amend it, make it better and pass it by the end of the year,” Michael Wernick, who served as clerk of the Privy Council for Canada from 2016 to 2019, told Mercedes Stephenson in an interview on The West Block Sunday.
Artur Wilczynski — a former director general of security and intelligence at Global Affairs Canada who also served as assistant deputy minister of intelligence at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) — added efforts to make Canada’s intelligence agencies more transparent about the threats they detect and how they operate will only benefit Canadians.
“I think having a conversation about the role of intelligence in the middle of a crisis is not a productive or informed conversation,” he said.
“The kind of exercise that could be a little bit more deliberative, that makes concrete recommendations, and that at the end of the day, security intelligence agencies in Canada are more transparent … will provide Canadians with the confidence they need that our organizations are there to protect them.”
Over recent months, Global News and The Globe and Mail have revealed detailed reports showing the scope of China’s alleged efforts to influence Canadian society, including allegations of attempts to interfere in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
The reports have sparked growing calls for a public inquiry to delve into the wider issue of foreign interference — including if Canada is doing enough to protect against it.
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On Thursday, a House of Commons committee investigating the allegations called for a public inquiry into the matter, with all opposition members backing a non-binding NDP motion that was opposed by Liberal members.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far resisted the inquiry calls, saying there are other procedures underway — including the House of Commons committee’s expanded probe — that are equipped to address the allegations. He again refused to answer if he would support such an inquiry on Friday in response to the committee’s motion.
Wernick says while he supports the idea of an inquiry, it should be broad and not just focus on the Chinese allegations at the centre of media reports. But he adds such an inquiry should not be the starting point for legislative changes.
“We don’t have to wait a year and a half for its findings,” he said. “I can tell you the findings already: It will recommend that we take the Australian and U.K. models of foreign interference legislation and registration and bring them to Canada.
“So there’s nothing stopping our politicians from working on that legislation in parallel (with an inquiry).”
Australia and the United Kingdom have both recently enacted public registries that require people advocating for a foreign state to register their activities, under penalty of fines or jail time. The United States has a similar program.
Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino have previously said Canada is looking at creating a similar registry.
Last month, both American and Australian security officials openly talked about the threat foreign interference poses to their countries during separate events.
On Feb. 21, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) said Australia faces an unprecedented threat with more Australians being targeted by agents than ever before.
That same day, top U.S. state election and cybersecurity officials warned about threats posed by Russia and other foreign adversaries ahead of the 2024 elections, noting America’s decentralized system of thousands of local voting jurisdictions creates a vulnerability.
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Wernick and Wilczynski agreed that kind of transparency should also be a model for Canada’s politicians and public servants working in intelligence, not only while looking back at past elections but in explaining how the fight against foreign interference will continue.
“Understanding what happened in (the elections of) 2019 and in 2021, that’s important. But how do we continue to have this conversation in a transparent way so that Canadians know, what are the security agencies doing to protect the electoral systems?” Wilczynski said.
“What are officers of Parliament like the elections commissioner and the head of Elections Canada, what are they doing? What are political parties doing to ensure that we have the right calibrated approach to mitigate risks to our democracy? It’s foundational and it’s ongoing.”
Wilczynski noted the CSE also issued threat assessments, similar to last month’s U.S. warning, ahead of the 2019 and 2021 elections to warn Canadians and political parties “to be mindful” and protect their data from hostile foreign actors, who are increasing their attempts at interference.
“It’s persistent, it’s growing, and it’s becoming more sophisticated,” he said.
Wernick adds increased transparency also needs to be balanced with protecting intelligence gathering methods and maintaining the integrity of law enforcement investigations — which he and Wilczynski say is being put at risk by leaks to the media.
“There is a balancing act that you need enough transparency to retain that trust and confidence, but if you go too far then you reveal collection methods and sources and you would compromise your future ability to keep gathering that information,” Wernick said.
A long-awaited report released last week confirmed the conclusion of a panel tasked with overseeing election integrity that the 2021 federal election was free and fair, despite acknowledging there were attempts at interference that did not rise to the level of requiring a warning to voters.
However, that report suggested the threshold for the panel to notify the public in the event of such interference — which was also not met during the 2019 vote — should be lowered for future elections.
NDP, Conservatives push for inquiry into foreign election interference allegations
Both Wilczynski and Wernick agree more communication to the public will not only help Canadians better understand how intelligence gathering works and protects them, but also restore faith in elections and democracy.
“I think transparency is essential, and I think transparency is something that we can do more of within the security intelligence community,” Wilczynski said.
“We have to have an appropriate retrospective look at what happened. … But then we need to look forward. What can government institutions and leaders do to restore Canadians confidence in our democratic institutions and to be ready for the evolving threat of foreign interference in Canada?”
— with files from Aaron D’Andrea