Citizen Group Says Canada’s Foreign Interference Bill Has Loopholes

Citizen Group Says Canada’s Foreign Interference Bill Has Loopholes
A copy of the interim report is seen on a table following its release by the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, in Ottawa on May 3, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)
Andrew Chen
6/11/2024
Updated:
6/11/2024
0:00

A citizen advocacy group has raised concerns about loopholes in the government’s proposed foreign interference legislation, saying it could allow interference in Canadian politics to persist.

Democracy Watch said in a June 10 release that Bill C-70 contains flaws that could leave the door open to foreign interference in party leadership contests, saying foreign agents wouldn’t be required to disclose secret communications with election candidates, party leadership contestants, or those who have been elected as MPs or appointed as senators, but have not taken office.

The group also voiced concerns that foreign agents could use a lobbyist as a “proxy” for their influence activities.

“If loopholes in the bill are not closed, secret, unethical and undemocratic foreign interference in elections, party leadership races, parties and government policy-making processes will continue to be legal across Canada, and enforcement will be weak, ineffective, secretive and too much under the control of the ruling party Cabinet,” Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher said in the release.

Bill C-70, introduced on May 6, seeks to establish a foreign agent registry in Canada and appoint an independent commissioner to oversee its operation. The bill also expands criminal offences aimed at curbing foreign interference in Canada.

Democracy Watch argued the discretionary powers granted to the federal cabinet under Bill C-70 are “dangerously broad.” It said these powers would exclude public officials from disclosure requirements if foreign agents communicate with them, exclude certain foreign interference arrangements from prohibited activities, limit the information in the foreign interference registry, and control the bill’s implementation timeline.

The group also raised concerns about the proposed foreign interference commissioner’s lack of independence, potential for political bias, and insufficient accountability measures. It pointed to changes in the ethical lobbying rules last year as examples of ineffective enforcement due to lack of independence and transparency.

Democracy Watch, along with 26 citizen groups, opposed the proposed changes to the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct in March 2023, saying the changes would “legalize bribery” by permitting favour-trading between lobbyists and politicians. They objected to sponsored travel junkets and argued that allowing individuals to conduct campaign work for a politician before lobbying for them creates an unfair advantage due to a perceived sense of obligation.

Calls for Investigation

In its press release, Democracy Watch called on the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to share redacted information in the recently released report from the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP). The report cited “troubling intelligence” that some parliamentarians are “witting” participants of foreign interference in Canadian politics.

Bill C-70 would give CSIS new powers to share intelligence with non-federal entities on foreign interference threats, and Democracy Watch called on the agency to do so once the law is enacted. It further urged the RCMP, the Commissioner of Canada Elections, and the ethics commissioner, to investigate cases of foreign interference involving MPs or senators.

The group noted that such violations should be addressed before the next election to ensure accountability—mirroring a similar call from Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to release the list of complicit parliamentarians.
The Conservatives said they would work with the Liberal government to quickly pass Bill C-70. Tory MP Michael Chong, who serves as his party’s foreign affairs critic, sent a letter to Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc on May 28, to expedite passage of the bill before the next election.
Officials from the Department of Public Safety testified at a House committee last month that upon the passage of Bill C-70, it will take an additional year before the foreign influence registry becomes operational.
After the NSICOP report was released on June 3, the Privy Council Office published a statement. While acknowledging the report, the government disagreed with certain elements, specifically its interpretation of intelligence reports, noting its lack of “necessary caveats inherent to intelligence” and failure to fully acknowledge efforts to inform parliamentarians about the threat of foreign interference.

Mr. Conacher also noted that additional reforms beyond the foreign agent registry are necessary to effectively combat foreign interference. He criticized recent changes to lobbying and ethics laws, which he says have further weakened the regulatory framework and increased vulnerability to foreign influence.

“Those changes, combined with the existing loopholes in Canada’s election, political donation and spending, lobbying and ethics laws, make it even easier than it was in the past for foreign governments, businesses and organizations to influence Canadian politics and politicians in secret, including by making false claims on social media sites,” he said.

Noé Chartier and Tara MacIsaac contributed to this report