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Senators approve bill to fight foreign interference after voting down amendment

The Senate has passed a government bill intended to help deter, investigate and punish foreign interference. An overall view of the Senate is shown in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld The Senate has passed a government bill intended to help deter, investigate and punish foreign interference. An overall view of the Senate is shown in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
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OTTAWA -

The Senate has passed a government bill intended to help deter, investigate and punish foreign interference amid concerns the legislation received inadequate scrutiny and could unduly infringe on basic freedoms.

Senators approved the legislation late Wednesday after voting down a proposed amendment aimed at ensuring innocent people are not swept up in its net.

A recent report from the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians said foreign states engage in sophisticated and pervasive interference, specifically targeting Canada's democratic processes before, during and after elections.

It found China and India are the most active perpetrators, adding these activities pose a significant threat to national security and the overall integrity of Canada's democracy.

The federal bill, known as C-70, creates targeted foreign interference offences for deceptive or surreptitious acts that undermine democratic processes. An example would be covertly influencing the outcome of a political process such as the nomination of a candidate, the government says.

Another new offence outlaws deceptive or clandestine acts that harm Canadian interests -- for instance, helping foreign agents posing as tourists to enter Canada.

In addition, the bill amends the law to better address foreign intimidation of members of diaspora communities in Canada.

A new sabotage offence focuses on conduct directed at essential infrastructure, such as systems that enable transportation or communications or support delivery of health and food services.

The bill also allows the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to disclose sensitive information beyond the halls of government to build resiliency against foreign meddling.

The legislation recognizes that states and other foreign entities that engage in interference to advance political goals might employ people to act on their behalf, without disclosing those ties.

The transparency registry will require certain individuals to register with the federal government to help guard against such activity.

Failing to register an arrangement or activity with a foreign principal -- a power, state, entity or economic entity -- could result in financial penalties or even criminal sanctions.

Criminal provisions in the bill, as well as the influence registry, target activities carried out "in association with" a foreign entity -- wording that struck Sen. Yuen Pau Woo as too sweeping.

Woo proposed scrubbing the phrase from the bill to protect freedom of expression and association, and help prevent stigmatization of Canadians who could be unfairly targeted by overly broad terminology.

His suggested amendment was defeated Wednesday, and senators proceeded to approve the legislation.

Woo has faced accusations of being overly sympathetic to the Chinese government, allegations the senator has openly pushed back against.

He expressed "deep concern" Thursday the legislation could have a chilling effect on civic engagement, particularly among diaspora communities in Canada.

"I am concerned that Canadians looking to contribute to Canadian democracy will be criminalized for their civic actions because of a bill that could tag them as having done so secretly or deceptively -- on the grounds that they are deemed to be 'in association with' a foreign entity."

The legislation, introduced in the House of Commons early last month, moved swiftly through Parliament.

The Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group said Thursday that a bill of this importance, complexity and potential impact deserves more study.

It is disappointing, but not surprising, that no further changes were made to protect liberties and Charter rights, said the group, which speaks for dozens of civil society organizations.

"As we have shared throughout the expedited study of the bill, addressing harms caused by foreign interference is necessary," it said. "But many proposals in C-70 are overly broad, lack safeguards and transparency, and go much further than foreign interference."

Business Council of Canada president Goldy Hyder said parliamentarians demonstrated that when it comes to national security, they can work co-operatively and efficiently.

Canadian business leaders have long called for the economic security measures in the bill, including new sabotage offences and authorization of more threat intelligence sharing with Canadian companies, Hyder said.

Duff Conacher, co-founder of the group Democracy Watch, said legislators "have left loopholes in the bill that allow for secret interference in elections, party leadership races, political parties and government policy-making processes across Canada."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2024. 

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