Marco Mendicino says allegations reinforce need for registry of foreign agents
Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino says Chinese community members in Vancouver have told him of "intimidation, harassment and abuse" linked to foreign governments or their proxies.
Mendicino said Wednesday's meeting with a "robust cross-section'' of community members reinforced the need for a registry of agents who are acting on behalf of foreign governments in Canada.
"Foreign interference is a phenomenon that has existed for many years, but it has become a more insidious threat to our national security landscape,'' Mendicino said after the meeting.
"And so that's why we have [been], and will continue to be, very proactive in putting in place the people, the resources and the tools that are necessary to combat foreign interference.''
The federal government announced in March that it wants to hear from Canadians on creating a foreign influence transparency registry to help prevent meddling in Canada's affairs. The process will continue until May.
The minister did not disclose exactly who was invited to Wednesday's meeting, only that it included "community advocates, business leaders and representatives."
Mendicino said some indicated they fear retaliation, so he chose to host the discussions in a "safe and inclusive" environment where the privacy of those speaking would be protected.
The issue of foreign interference has been under debate amid media reports citing unnamed security sources and classified documents that warned China had tried to interfere in the last two federal elections, as well as the recent municipal election in Vancouver.
The requirement that someone be registered to act on behalf of a foreign government, thus making their actions more transparent, has been in place in the United States since 1938 and was introduced in Australia five years ago.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's national security adviser Jody Thomas said in a memo last August that a registry could elicit public pushback, since countries like Russia have used it as a tool "to silence activists and shut down organizations critical of government."
Mendicino said he heard similar concerns at Wednesday's meeting, with some people expressing concerns about how a person would be labelled as an agent.
The minister said a properly calibrated registry should alleviate, not deepen, such fears.
"By bringing sunlight and transparency to the table, we are able to ensure that those foreign activities and diplomatic activities are being done in a way that is transparent,'' Mendicino said.
Mendicino was joined at the meeting by Richmond Centre MP Wilson Miao and Steveston–Richmond East MP Parm Bains. Both Liberals defeated incumbent Conservatives in the 2021 federal election.
Mendicino dismissed a question about whether foreign interference might have helped Miao or Bains.
"I want to be very clear that MPs Bains and Miao are two hard-working colleagues who were elected by their respective constituents in their respective ridings by Canadians — and Canadians alone,'' Mendicino said.
"And we are confident in the integrity of the elections of 2019 and 2021, as was verified by two independent panels.''
Mendicino said the 2023 budget earmarks $50 million for law enforcement and national security agencies to "directly support and protect'' Canadians from intimidation or harassment stemming from foreign interference.
"When you take all of that and you add to it the creation of this registry, Canadians can be confident that the government of Canada is doing everything that is necessary to protect our economy, to protect our communities, and to protect Canadians from foreign interference.''
The recent reports claiming Chinese election interference came after a Spanish civil rights group said it had uncovered more than 100 secret Chinese "police service stations" in 53 countries across the world, including five in Canada.
Safeguard Defenders alleges that people connected to these stations have been involved in persuading nationals suspected of committing crimes to return to China to face criminal proceedings.
The Chinese Embassy has previously described the offices as volunteer-run service stations to process things like driver's licences.
With files from CBC News
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