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Intelligence agencies here have warned for several years that foreign powers, including China and India, are seeking to interfere in Canadian society, targeting not only politicians but also businesses, nonprofits, universities and dissidents. 

Intelligence agencies here have warned for several years that foreign powers, including China and India, are seeking to interfere in Canadian society, targeting not only politicians but also businesses, nonprofits, universities and dissidents.  (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

TORONTO - Canadian lawmakers “knowingly or through willful blindness” accepted money from foreign powers, colluded with foreign officials to “improperly” interfere in parliamentary business to “the advantage of the foreign state” and gave information obtained in confidence to a foreign intelligence officer.

Some were, “in the words of the intelligence services, ‘semi-witting or witting’ participants in efforts of foreign states to interfere in our politics.”

These are among the explosive claims leveled in a new report made public by a committee of lawmakers that’s now rattling Parliament.

In a country that’s grown used to reports of Chinese and other foreign meddling, this one from the all-party National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians has landed this month like a bomb, raising familiar questions about how seriously the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is taking the threat.

Adding to the anxiety is the committee’s decision to withhold the names of the individuals accused, how many there are and what they are alleged to have done - redactions that have had the effect of casting a shadow over the entire body.

“We have had a number of reports now on this particular issue, and this was by far the most direct and strongest,” said Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Intelligence agencies here have warned for several years that foreign powers, including China and India, are seeking to interfere in Canadian society, targeting not only politicians but also businesses, nonprofits, universities and dissidents. The issue gained new prominence when media reported that China sought to interfere in the last two federal elections in 2019 and 2021 that returned Trudeau’s Liberals to power.

After an initially muted response, Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre, who has a double-digit lead over Trudeau in opinion polls, is calling on the government to name names.

The government has refused, arguing that the police should investigate and lay charges if warranted. It has also said that releasing names would risk disclosing sensitive sources and methods and could impugn the reputation of current and former lawmakers based on intelligence that might be uncorroborated or unverified without providing them due process.

“It’s … more complicated than it looks,” Ward Elcock, ex-head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “I’m … a little surprised that [the committee] went as far as they did in identifying that there were individuals within Parliament who crossed the line.”

Government officials have instead urged opposition party leaders to obtain the security clearances necessary to review an unredacted version of the report. Poilievre has refused, arguing that it would tie his hands and prevent him from holding the government to account on the issue.

Two other party leaders did; their impressions left many asking whether they’d read the same document.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May told reporters Wednesday that she’s concerned that foreign powers see Canada as “a pretty vulnerable, soft target,” but was “relieved” after reading the report because none of what’s in it “could be considered disloyalty to Canada.”

But on Thursday, New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh said reading the report had left him “more alarmed.” He called the lawmakers it implicates “traitors to their country.” He also accused Trudeau and Poilievre of putting politics before the national interest.

The committee, known as NSICOP, reports to the prime minister’s office. After the Globe and Mail newspaper reported last year on alleged attempts by China to meddle in Canada’s last two federal elections, Trudeau tasked the committee with probing foreign interference. China has denied the claims.

Its report names China as the main actor seeking to interfere in Canadian affairs and India the second-most significant threat. Leadership and nomination races of several federal political parties, including both Trudeau’s Liberals and Poilievre’s Conservatives, have been targets.

The committee noted the “particularly concerning” case of a former member of Parliament allegedly “maintaining a relationship with a foreign intelligence officer” and “proactively” providing the officer with information provided in confidence.

It found a “persistent disconnect between the gravity of the threat and the measures taken to counter it.” While some of the activity described might be illegal, it said, it’s “unlikely to lead to criminal charges,” given the challenges of protecting classified information in court.

NSICOP members obtain high-level security clearances; they’re required to swear to secrecy for life. Committee Chairman David McGuinty told reporters Wednesday that the focus on what he described as a narrow part of a 92-page report was “unfortunate.”

The document includes recommendations for addressing foreign interference - many of which have been included in previous reports probing the issue. McGuinty, a Liberal member of Parliament, called on lawmakers to set aside partisanship and implement them.

“We cannot play with national security and intelligence,” McGuinty said. “There are people’s lives and careers and reputations at stake here. We have folks in the field, we have sources and methods, we have relationships with foreign governments. … This is not a game.”

In dealing with the accused individuals, analysts say, the government has options. Party leaders, they note, have booted members of Parliament from caucus for far less than the report alleges.

“Party leaders are the stewards of their party, and like the nominees, the candidates in any election are approved by the party leaders themselves,” said Carvin, now a professor of international relations at Ottawa’s Carleton University. “They get the final say as to who is a candidate and who isn’t.”

In parallel to the NSICOP investigation, the Trudeau government last year launched a public inquiry into alleged foreign election interference. In an interim report, released last month, Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue found the meddling did not alter the overall outcome of the 2019 and 2021 votes.

Still, she said, it’s possible that it did affect results in a small number of electoral districts, and it “undermined the right of voters to have an electoral ecosystem free from coercion or covert influence.”

Parliament has called on Hogue to investigate the allegations that current and former lawmakers aided foreign powers, effectively passing the buck. She’s required to release a final report by the end of the year.

“It’s frustrating because it’s not solving anything,” Carvin said. “It really feels that Parliament is trying to get a federal judge to do the dirty work for them.”

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