Canadian government proposes new foreign influence registry as part of sweeping new bill

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is proposing a set of new measures and legal changes aimed at countering foreign interference in Canada, amid widespread scrutiny over past meddling attempts and an ever-evolving threat landscape.

Minister of Public Safety and Democratic Institutions Dominic LeBlanc introduced the legislation in the House of Commons on Monday.

“We are taking steps to adapt and respond to our world where life, and consequently threats, are increasingly moving online,” said LeBlanc, backed by Justice Minister Arif Virani and several other parliamentarians. liberals.

Bill C-70, the “Anti-Foreign Interference Act”, spans nearly 100 pages and proposes enacting a new “Foreign Influence Transparency and Accountability Act,” which would include the appointment of a new foreign influence transparency commissioner responsible for maintaining a publicly accessible registry.

Viewed as a way to improve transparency about influence activities undertaken by foreign states and their representatives in Canada, the Liberals propose requiring foreign entities seeking to implement any influence activity related to a government or political process to register.

This would include foreign states or companies seeking to communicate with a politician or the Canadian public about the development of a policy, the holding of an election, or the nomination of a political candidate, as examples. Duly accredited diplomats would be exempt.

Failure of foreign directors to register this activity could result in fines of up to $5 million or up to five years in prison, according to senior federal officials who briefed reporters on the bill. It remains to be seen how quickly the registry could be established, but it is expected to be at least a year after the legislation becomes law.

Important legal and security reforms

The new and long-sought registry is one of four main parts of the bill.

Beyond this, Bill C-70 also proposes amending the 40-year-old Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act to grant new power to share sensitive threat information beyond the federal government, including with political parties and provincial governments, while altering existing court orders. and intelligence gathering authorities.

Explaining why these reforms are needed, a senior official said electronic information has become a central part of national security investigations, but key and often basic pieces of information can no longer be accessed through technical techniques. conventional research. For example, trying to identify the individual behind an online username, who is believed to be spreading disinformation about an elected official on behalf of a foreign state, requires CSIS to obtain a court order.

“The new custom warrants, including preservation orders and production orders, will ensure that CSIS can develop a broader picture of potential threat activity, classify foreign interference threats more effectively, and focus resources on the highest priority investigations,” the official said.

Through reforms to the Information Security Act, Bill C-70 seeks to create new “targeted” foreign interference crimes, including political interference for a foreign entity, such as planting false stories to discredit a critic of one foreign government, while increasing sanctions for others. The Liberals also propose eliminating the need, under this law, to prove that the law actually helped the foreign state or harmed Canada.

Additionally, the federal government plans to update the Penal Code to enact new sabotage crimes focused on essential infrastructure and the possession or sale of devices used for sabotage, such as malware-infected robots. The bill also makes adjustments to clarify that the sabotage crimes covered by the law – not revised since 1951 – do not apply to legitimate defense, protest or dissent in circumstances where there is no intention to cause harm. serious.

Bill C-70 also seeks to standardize how federal officials protect and disclose confidential information, through amendments to the Canada Evidence Act.

And, if passed, the legislation would require Parliament to review the CSIS Act every five years.

Officials said the intent of this package of amendments and new policies is to better protect Canadians – including members of the diaspora and marginalized or vulnerable communities – by further equipping the country’s national security agencies to detect, deter and defend against malicious foreign actors.

While many are still sifting through the fine print, initial reaction from national security experts appeared to welcome the series of reforms as important upgrades that offer Canada more ability to counter evolving interference threats, while warning that The scope of certain elements will not be known until post-pass regulations are revealed.

Foreign registration has been necessary for a long time

The federal government has long been called upon to implement some form of searchable registry and database of agents working to influence the policies of foreign governments, similar to the systems in place in Australia and the United States.

Last fall, members of the House ethics committee released an 82-page report at the conclusion of their months-long study of foreign interference, calling on the administration to act on its nearly two dozen findings. recommendations, including the implementation of a foreign commission. agent registration “as soon as possible.”

These MPs took the position that Trudeau should not wait for the ongoing public inquiry into foreign election interference to conclude before taking further action.

Asked Monday what he was looking for in the registry just as the bill was introduced, Conservative MP Tom Kmiec told reporters he wants to see the full legal names and government connections listed once this new measure becomes In fact.

“Most of our Western allies have one. The United States has one, Australia has one, the United Kingdom has one. It’s just a transparency measure to ensure that if people receive money from a foreign government, they have to say so publicly, and publicly disclose exactly where the money for their operations comes from,” Kmiec said.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian welcomed the new bill, but “long overdue.”

“We are in this position because successive Conservative and Liberal governments have failed to address these threats with the urgency necessary to protect Canadians and our electoral system from foreign interference,” Julian said.

“New Democrats will take a close look at the bill and we will continue to press the government to take more action so that all Canadians can have full confidence in our elections.”

The bill comes just days after Commissioner Marie-Josee Hogue released her interim report examining foreign interference in the election, determining that while Chinese meddling occurred in some constituencies, it did not affect the overall outcome of the election. the 2019 and 2021 Canadian general elections.

Noting that this legislation was imminent, LeBlanc said last week it was part of an “ongoing effort” to bolster Canada’s preparedness to counter foreign meddling.

“Foreign states may knowingly or unknowingly recruit people to assist them on Canadian soil. They may also clandestinely attempt to silence dissidents and promote narratives that are favorable to their country. Such actions constitute foreign interference,” he said. LeBlanc. “It is a deliberate attempt to disrupt the fundamental values ​​and freedoms that we as Canadians hold dear and that are at the very heart of our free and open society.”

The minister could not say what elements of this bill, if any, will be in place before the next election. LeBlanc said he hopes for everything and that he will work with opposition parties to achieve that goal, given widespread calls for more action on the issue.

With files from Spencer Van Dyk of CTV News

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