For more than a year, Canada has been mulling the creation of a foreign agent registry to fight interference in the country’s democratic processes.
The Liberal government and even some firm supporters of the idea acknowledge such a registry would be just one of several tools to prevent hostile actors from meddling in Canadian affairs.
Others say it doesn’t belong in the toolbox at all.
The rationale for establishing a registry stems from the fact states may engage in interference to advance their political goals, and can employ people to act on their behalf without those individuals disclosing who they’re helping.
Some believe requiring such people to formally register with the government they are trying to influence – with the threat of fines or even prison time for failing to comply – can make these dealings more visible to the public.
Allegations of Chinese interference in the last two federal elections – suggestions fuelled by anonymous leaks to the media – have amplified calls for a registry.
A registry might not stop all meddlers, but it would convey a signal this is “something that Canada is taking strong interest in,” said Cheuk Kwan, co-chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China.
“I think that’s the message that we need to send to the foreign powers.”
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The current lack of a Canadian registry “means that nothing is transparent,” he added. “We don’t know who’s doing what.”
Vincent Rigby, a former national security and intelligence adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, also sees value in a registry, but, like Kwan, he cautions it would not be a panacea.
“These people who conduct a lot of foreign interference, by definition, do it in secrecy. And for them to come out publicly and say that I’m doing this or I’m doing that on behalf of a foreign government – they’re not necessarily going to do that,” said Rigby, now a professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.
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“However, hopefully, it’ll act as a deterrent, because if they do these activities and they get caught, they’re going to suffer the consequences. It’s not going to be a magic potion that is going to make foreign interference go away. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
The United States and Australia, two of Canada’s closest allies, already have such registries and Britain is expected to set one up this year.
Wesley Wark, a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation who has long followed Canadian national security issues, said Canada faces threats from hostile foreign states out to intimidate diaspora communities, steal valuable technological know-how, and interfere in elections and other democratic processes.
But Wark, who took part in a federal consultation on creation of a registry, considers the proposed measure little more than “security theatre.”
“You cannot use a foreign influence registry to stop malign foreign influence. That’s not how it’s going to work.”
A registry could help educate the public, align Canada with its allies and have a deterrent effect, Wark allows.
“But the downsides are, I think, huge.”
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A registry could become “a baggy bureaucratic monster” whose complexity leaves people wondering whether they need to sign on, takes money from the pockets of security agencies investigating illicit foreign influence and runs afoul of Charter of Rights guarantees of freedom of speech, Wark said.
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British Columbia Sen. Yuen Pau Woo told the federal consultation last year that a registry would not address egregious acts of foreign state interference.
“On the other hand, it will stifle legitimate political debate, stigmatize certain groups, and foster inwardness,” he said in a written submission, released under the Access to Information Act.
“The costs of a registry will far outweigh its meagre benefits. To adopt a registry now is to give in to the politics of fear and division. It will result in a smaller, nastier and more self-absorbed Canada.”
Kwan disagrees, saying a registry would help quell racism.
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Creating a list of actual foreign agents would lift a cloud of suspicion that hangs over all members of the Chinese community in Canada, he said. “I think a registry will clear our name.”
Overall, respondents to the public consultation favoured establishing what the government calls a foreign influence transparency registry, but they stressed a need for clarity on how it would work.
A federal summary of the consultation said participants wanted a registry to appropriately define who has to sign on and to spell out what falls within the scope of covered activities.
They also urged the government to continue its outreach program with communities at risk of foreign interference, put more resources toward enforcing counter-foreign interference laws and make additional legislative amendments in the national security sphere.
In that vein, in late November the government announced a fresh public consultation on possible changes to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, which governs Canada’s spy service, as well as the Criminal Code, the Security of Information Act and the Canada Evidence Act.
Wark sees the latest federal review as a sign the Liberal government is realizing it should prioritize strengthening the national security legal framework over creation of an influence registry.
Ottawa also needs to figure out what a registry would accomplish that existing legislation governing lobbying activities and federal elections cannot already do, he said.
“As much as it looked simple when they first dived into it, I think they increasingly realize that it’s not.”
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