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Canadian government proposes new foreign influence registry as part of wide-spanning new bill


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

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

"We're taking action to adapt and to respond to our world where life, and consequently threats, are increasingly moving to the online realm," LeBlanc said, backed by Justice Minister Arif Virani and several other Liberal MPs.

Bill C-70, the "Countering Foreign Interference Act," spans nearly 100 pages and proposes to enact a new "Foreign Influence Transparency and Accountability Act," which would include appointing a new foreign influence transparency commissioner responsible for maintaining a publicly accessible registry.

Billed as a way to enhance transparency over influence activities undertaken by foreign states and their proxies in Canada, the Liberals are proposing to require foreign entities, seeking to enact some influence activity related to a government or political process, to register.

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

Foreign principals' failure 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 take at least one year after the legislation becomes law.

Major security, law reforms

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

Beyond this, Bill C-70 also proposes to amend the 40-year-old Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act to grant a new power to share sensitive information about threats beyond the federal government, including with political parties and provincial governments, while altering existing warrant and intelligence collection authorities.

Explaining why these reforms are required, a senior official said that electronic information has become a central part of national security investigations, but key and often basic pieces of information are no longer accessible through conventional investigative techniques. For example, seeking to identify the individual behind an online username, believed to be spreading disinformation about an elected official on behalf of a foreign state, requires that CSIS obtain a warrant.

"New tailored judicial authorizations, including preservation orders and production orders, will ensure CSIS can develop a broader picture of potential threat activity, triage foreign interference threats more effectively and focus resources on the highest priority investigations," the official said.

Through reforms to the Security of Information Act, Bill C-70 seeks to create new "targeted" foreign interference offences, including political interference for a foreign entity such as planting false stories to discredit a critic of a foreign government, while increasing the penalties for others. The Liberals are also proposing to remove the need under this law to prove that the act actually helped the foreign state or harmed Canada.

In addition, the federal government plans to update the Criminal Code to enact new sabotage offences focused on essential infrastructure and possessing or selling devices used for sabotage such as malware-infected bots. The bill also makes adjustments to clarify that sabotage offences under the law – not reviewed since 1951 – do not apply to legitimate advocacy, protest or dissent in circumstances where there is no intention to cause serious harm.

Bill C-70 also seeks to standardize the way sensitive information is protected and disclosed by federal officials, through alterations to the Canada Evidence Act.

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

Officials said the intention of this package of amendments and new policies is to better protect Canadians – including members of diaspora, 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 parsing the fine print, the initial reaction from national security experts appeared to welcome the series of reforms as important updates offering Canada more teeth to counter evolving interference threats, while cautioning that the scope of certain elements won't become known until the post-passage regulations are revealed. 

Foreign registry long called for 

There have long been calls for the federal government to implement some form of register and searchable database of agents working to influence policy for 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 on foreign interference, and in it called on the government to act on its nearly two dozen recommendations, including putting in place a foreign agent registry "as soon as possible."

These parliamentarians took the position that Trudeau should not wait for the ongoing public inquiry into foreign election interference to wrap up before taking further steps.

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

"Most of our western allies have one. The United States has one, Australia has one, the United Kingdom has one. It's just a measure of transparency to ensure if people take money from a foreign government, they have to say it publicly, and disclose publicly exactly where is the money coming from for their operations," Kmiec said.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian welcomed the new but "long overdue" bill.

We're in this position because successive Conservative and Liberal governments have failed to treat these threats with the urgency required to protect Canadians and our electoral system from foreign interference," Julian said.

"New Democrats will be examining the bill closely and we'll continue to put pressure on the government to take further action so 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 election interference, determining that while Chinese meddling did occur in a few ridings, it did not affect the overall outcome of Canada's 2019 and 2021 general elections.

In signalling that this legislation was looming, LeBlanc said last week it was part of an "ongoing effort" to shore up Canada's readiness to counter foreign meddling.

"Foreign states may recruit witting or unwittingly individuals to assist them on Canadian soil. They may also attempt to silence dissidents and promote narratives that are favourable to their country in a clandestine manner. Such actions constitute foreign interference," LeBlanc said. "It is a deliberate attempt to disrupt the fundamental values and freedoms that as Canadians we cherish 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 ahead of the next election. LeBlanc said he hopes all of it, and will work with opposition parties towards that aim, given the widespread calls for more action on this file. 

With files from CTV News' Spencer Van Dyk 




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