This past winter, a series of unprecedented media leaks from anonymous Canadian intelligence officials raised questions about the capacity of the federal government to protect Canada from “influence operations” aimed at the country’s democracy. Much of the partisan debate that followed has focused on whether there will be a public inquiry to get to the bottom of the government’s management of the problem rather than on concrete and immediate steps that could make our elections more resilient. What follows are five policy proposals to counter foreign interference, reflecting interviews with more than a dozen Canadians with unique insights into this problem.

Establish a foreign influence registry

In April 2021, Kenny Chiu introduced a private member’s bill to establish a registry that would require people to log any activities undertaken in Canada on behalf of a foreign state. Failing to do so would bring penalties, including prison time.

Chiu, who immigrated from Hong Kong in 1982, was then the Conservative MP for the British Columbia riding of Steveston—Richmond East. The registry was his attempt to address escalating warnings of foreign influence in Canada. In 2019, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, an oversight body of MPs and senators with access to classified information, noted that Canada was “vulnerable to foreign actors seeking to interfere with its political and economic processes.” It singled out China as one of the main perpetrators. A year later, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned that Beijing’s military and intelligence services were not only carrying out a vast cyberespionage campaign in Canada (stealing personal data and technology) but were also intimidating and threatening critics in Chinese immigrant communities. CSIS director David Vigneault called China, in a speech to the the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a “direct threat to our national security and sovereignty.” A 2021 report by Alliance Canada Hong Kong, a group of Chinese pro-democracy advocates, described in detail a sophisticated operation to co-opt Canadian politicians, academics, and business leaders, echoing journalists and activists who have described similar efforts around the world.

Chiu was inspired by the registry in Australia, which then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull set up in 2018 after becoming alarmed at Chinese influence operations aimed at controlling citizens of Chinese descent and manipulating Australian decision makers. The United Kingdom is in the final stages of adopting its own registry.

If you doubt the value of such an approach, consider the American response to the discovery of clandestine Chinese police stations in Manhattan. The human rights group Safeguard Defenders has identified scores of such stations around the world, including in Canada. It alleges they are being used to “harass, threaten, intimidate and force targets to return to China for persecution.” (China has denied they are police stations and instead describes them as providing basic services for citizens abroad.) Thanks to the American registry—in place since 1938 and featuring a maximum penalty of five years in prison for failure to catalogue foreign influence work—the Federal Bureau of Investigation was able to swiftly lay charges. In Canada, where secret stations were identified in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver but where there is no registry, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau could only reassure Canadians that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was “following up on it.” To date, no arrests have been made, and the police stations are said to be still open.

Chiu thinks his bill would have helped: “It would send an effective message to those who are acting on behalf of foreign powers that we as a country, we are watching, we are paying attention,” he said in a recent interview. “And we would like to expose these actions under the sun.”

The government offered no response to Chiu’s bill. In late 2022, after leaks from intelligence agencies posed political difficulties for the government, it announced consultations to establish a registry. As of late April, there was still no timeline for its creation, according to what public safety minister Marco Mendicino told reporters.

Ensure independent election oversight

The federal government may not have paid attention to Chiu’s bill (it went nowhere in Parliament), but Beijing did. In September 2021, during that year’s election, Chiu’s suburban Vancouver riding—where about 45 percent of the voters are of Chinese ancestry—was targeted with disinformation in the Chinese press and a social media campaign conducted on WhatsApp and WeChat. The campaign portrayed him as anti-Chinese and warned his proposed registry would result in internment camps for Chinese Canadians. Chiu lost to Liberal Parm Bains by 3,477 votes, after having won in 2019 by 2,747.

Chiu now believes many Chinese Canadians who voted for him in 2019 were convinced to stay home by Beijing-sponsored disinformation. “If you are a Conservative supporter, when you see that your MP is proposing something that would hurt yourself and your family in the future, you probably would feel disincentivized to go to ballot as well.” Chiu says he had several meetings with CSIS officers, printing out examples of the disinformation and answering their questions. He says they declined to tell him what they would do with the information he provided.

Canada’s Conservative Party believes that Chiu wasn’t the only target. They point to a nationwide disinformation campaign that hurt them in ridings across Canada, convincing many to vote for other parties or stay home, as Conservative MP and former party leader Erin O’Toole has argued.

The election bulwarks the Canadian government had set up failed. In January 2019, the Trudeau government established a panel of senior public servants, chaired by the clerk of the Privy Council, to protect “against cyber threats and foreign interference.” The panel, which operates by consensus, is empowered to make a public announcement during the campaign period if it “determines that an incident or an accumulation of incidents has occurred and threatens Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.” The panel was supported by the Security and Intelligence Threats to Election Task Force, with representatives from the Communications Security Establishment, CSIS, RCMP, and Global Affairs Canada. Neither in 2019 nor in 2021 did it determine that a public announcement was warranted.

Walied Soliman is baffled as to why. As co-chair of the Conservative campaign, he attended task force meetings with other party representatives during the 2021 campaign. The party was receiving anecdotal reports of disinformation campaigns on social media from across Canada, so he took them to the task force. “Our concerns were never taken seriously,” he tweeted in February. “We were met with shrugged shoulders and complete ambivalence. It was truly unreal.”

Anne McGrath, the New Democratic Party’s national director, attended the same meetings. “I would say that they felt a bit pro forma,” she says. “You know, checking the box. And there wasn’t a lot of substantive information shared in the meetings. It just felt like it was a little bit like a shell.”

Following that election, Morris Rosenberg, a long-time Canadian federal public servant, produced a report on the task force’s work. In the report, Rosenberg, who did not reply to interview requests, wrote that while “national security agencies saw attempts at foreign interference,” it was not “enough to have met the threshold of impacting electoral integrity.”

Canadian government critics are unconvinced by Rosenberg’s report, pointing out that he was president of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation when it accepted a $1 million donation that CSIS sources have told the Globe and Mail was part of a Chinese “foreign influence operation.” All the members of the panel answer, ultimately, to the prime minister.

Former chief electoral officer (or CEO) Jean-Pierre Kingsley says he believes the government erred in not including an entirely independent figure on its task force. In 2021, he had written to intergovernmental affairs minister Dominic LeBlanc: “I believe it is essential that a person independent of the government (no current member enjoys this status) be part of the committee and that a direct link be established between this person and the CEO.”

In an interview with me, Kingsley said public servants may be diligent and thorough but they are not independent. “They see themselves serving the interests of the elected government,” he said. “That is their role.” Including at least one independent adjudicator on the election task force, he argued, would make it easier to convince one side in the political mix that the other can be trusted to sound the alarm if it seems to benefit from the interference. Unfortunately, the damage has been done. An Abacus poll from March found that one in four Conservative voters has come to believe the wrong party won the 2021 election as a result of election interference. This is a worrying loss of confidence in our electoral process.

Chiu says he believes it would be easier to have confidence in a process that involved Elections Canada or an official from some other body that doesn’t answer to the PMO. “What happens when it creates a conflict-of-interest situation when the foreign interference is politically beneficial to the current governing party? I’m not saying that it is. I’m just saying it creates a situation that is actually not good.”

Write new laws that apply to foreign interference

Karen Woods, co-founder of the non-profit advocacy group Canadian Chinese Political Affairs Committee has watched Beijing-sponsored interference for years and says she is frustrated by federal inaction. She believes stronger laws to facilitate the prosecution of foreign interference activities would help. “As of right now, we don’t have any legislation in place, so our institutions are defenceless and toothless.”

In 2019, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians recommended the federal government “modernize Canada’s legal toolkit” for halting foreign interference. Former Conservative senator Vern White, who sat on that committee, says none of the country’s federal parties took the recommendations seriously. “They were pretty clear: ‘Develop a comprehensive strategy.’ The question I would ask, three years later, is: Where is that strategy? Why wasn’t that done?”

It’s startling to think that the CSIS Act, the legislation that defines threats to Canada’s security, has not been reviewed since it was first passed in 1984—well before the internet was under way. CSIS spokesman Eric Balsam told me in an email that the act needs to be overhauled to meet the challenges of today’s complex global threat environment. “For example, prohibitions on disclosing classified information limit how CSIS can support entities outside of Government—including municipalities, universities and critical infrastructure—that face significant national security threats. More work remains to be done to ensure CSIS has the right authorities and tools to be a modern intelligence agency and fulfill its mandate.”

Michael Wernick, a former clerk of Canada’s Privy Council, testified before a Commons committee in April that Canadian MPs should use the UK’s National Security Bill as a model for legislative reform. The UK law will create new offences, with stiff prison penalties for electoral crimes carried out on behalf of foreign interests and for economic espionage conducted for foreign enterprises or intelligence services. It also allows intelligence agencies to respond more proactively to disrupt foreign activities.

Reach out to communities at risk

For several years, Karen Woods has tried to persuade voters in Markham, Ontario, to reduce their dependency on WeChat. This Chinese-owned social media app is popular with Mandarin-speaking immigrants but also plagued by censorship, monitoring, and disinformation. Last year, Woods debuted an online guide called Voters’ Compass to provide credible, non-partisan information about candidates. The website covers most municipalities with large Chinese Canadian populations in the Greater Toronto Area; Woods hopes to expand its reach across Canada for future elections. She thinks it could be a model for the battle against election tampering. “It’s crucially important,” she says, “that Ottawa starts looking at funding nonpartisan civic education organizations in the Chinese Canadian community as an extension of our existing institutions to battle China’s disinformation campaign.”

Ethnic Chinese communities are not the only diaspora groups in Canada subject to influence operations. Chiu contends the federal government should fund and certify non-partisan fact checkers in other communities. (For one example of how that idea might work, look to MyGoPen, a fact-checking website launched in Taiwan, to which Taiwanese users can send stories or posts they suspect have been spread by Chinese disinformation influencers.) “That way, at least people are aware of this information being circulated by Iranian Persian language or Chinese or whatever. And then, secondly, they know where to look for fact-checking help.”

The government must find ways to better inform Canadians about active threats, says Wesley Wark, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation who has long experience working on intelligence and security issues. “An ability at outreach from the federal government to communities at risk but also other levels of government—and, really, that whole communications network—about threats really doesn’t exist at the moment. Information about threats is essentially still siloed. And in Ottawa, it’s being shared a bit with political parties now, but it doesn’t reach far enough into other sectors.”

Beef up enforcement

Fred DeLorey, who managed the 2021 federal Conservative campaign in Canada, does not believe the result of that year’s national election was influenced by external meddling. But he says he is frustrated by the lack of answers from the public servants and intelligence officials who are in charge of monitoring this problem.

Previously critical of the election enforcement agency when he was working for then prime minister Stephen Harper, DeLorey now thinks investigators need more powers. DeLorey argues that Caroline J. Simard, the commissioner of Canada elections, who is in charge of investigating violations of the Election Act, should aggressively pursue allegations of foreign interference on her own initiative. “You need one entity in charge,” he says. “You need one entity that is at the centre of everything. If you have all these committees and a task force, you’ve got nothing. No one’s in charge.”

Kingsley agrees. The commissioner, he says, should have the power to compel testimony without judicial authorization. “[Simard] should have the ability to determine if the information is worth pursuing, and if it is, she should have the authority to launch an investigation on her own.”

Wark points to the role of the RCMP, which has the mandate to carry out national security investigations but has been widely criticized for letting community policing distract it from its mandate as a federal force. Wark points out that the Security of Information Act already has provisions that relate to foreign interference. “Let’s use them. And that gets to the point of who’s going to use them. That has to be the RCMP, and the RCMP has to have the will, the capacity, and the leadership to do that.” In the most recent federal budget, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced $49 million in funding for the Mounties to “protect Canadians from harassment and intimidation” from authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China, and Iran.

If Ottawa had acted sooner on these five recommendations, it’s likely the last two elections would not have been left with lingering questions. Any future changes will possibly come too late for Chiu. He says he would like to run again but is not sure it is worth the effort. “There have been no substantial actions taken against foreign interference,” he said. “What good is it? Because now I’ve been identified as a pariah in some of the constituents’ minds.”

Correction, May 15, 2023: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that the commissioner of Canada elections prosecutes violations of the Elections Act, and that the commissioner does not have the authority to initiate investigations on her own initiative, an authority she already has.

Reprinted, with permission, from the Centre for International Governance Innovation

Stephen Maher
Stephen Maher is an award-winning Canadian journalist, novelist, Harvard Nieman fellow, and a contributing author for the Centre for International Governance Innovation.