Foreign governments are looking to meddle in Canada’s democratic institutions and the government’s foreign interference warning system should alert Canadians to state actors’ “traditional” election tricks, says the chair of one of Canada’s national security committees.
Liberal MP David McGuinty, who has headed the secretive National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians since its inception, said the internal panel set up in 2019 to sound the alarm on election interference — the “critical election incident public protocol panel” — should have its mandate expanded to include old-school espionage techniques.
“What does that mean? That means volunteers signing up to work in campaign offices or campaign settings. It means individuals joining political parties and attending nomination meetings in order to attempt to exert influence. Usually, the motivation is directed in some way by a foreign government,” McGuinty told CBC News soon after NSICOP’s 2020 report was tabled in the House of Commons on Monday.
“We’ve seen this, we’ve reported on it in 2019. We’ve seen more of this in this annual report. So we believe that traditional forms of interference ought to be included in the mandate of that five person political panel.”
NSICOP, which is made up of MPs and Senators who are sworn to secrecy, has called out China and Russia in the past for using members of their diaspora populations to conduct foreign influence operations on their behalf.
“Foreign states use direct and indirect contact to influence democratic and electoral institutions and processes by manipulating ethnocultural communities, persons in positions of authority or influence, and the media,” says the redacted 2020 report.
McGuinty said the committee has written a list of recommendations to the prime minister to shore up Canada’s election interference warning system before the next campaign, whenever it comes.
Warning system panel should be expanded: NSICOP
The election panel was established in 2019 to alert the public to acts of election interference during the campaign period. The panel is made up of the clerk of the Privy Council, the federal national security and intelligence adviser, the deputy minister of justice, the deputy minister of public safety and the deputy minister of Global Affairs Canada (GAC).
If the panel finds evidence of a substantial threat to a free and fair election, it’s supposed to tell the prime minister, political party officials and Elections Canada and then make a public announcement. The Privy Council Office said the panel did observe suspicious activities during the 2019 election but they never reached a level of seriousness that would have required the panel to go public.
NSICOP members said the government should consider adding other respected Canadians to the panel, such as retired jurists.
“The committee is concerned that senior public servants appointed to the panel may be preoccupied with transition preparations during the writ period, and notes that an intervention by a non-partisan and high-profile group that includes prominent Canadians may carry more weight in the highly politicized context of an election,” said the report.
It also told the prime minister that the government should engage “frequently and substantively” with political parties on the election meddling panel’s purpose and should rethink how the panel would inform Canadians of an episode of foreign interference.
McGuinty said the committee is still waiting for a response.
The office of President of the Queen’s Privy Council Dominic LeBlanc, which oversees the protocol panel, did not respond to CBC’s request for comment.
An evaluation of the election protocol team by former CSIS director Jim Judd said Ottawa should consider activating its warning system during the pre-writ period. NSICOP agrees, said McGuinty.
“In 2019 we saw that foreign interference — the idea that foreign states were actively trying to interfere in Canadian politics, including electoral processes — was a certainty. It’s happening and was happening,” he said.
“It’s continuing, including through cyber means. So we feel that you can’t necessarily just identify and counter foreign interference if we only focus on the writ period.”
The committee’s annual report encouraged Ottawa to take all of its recommendations seriously. Since the tabling of its first report in December 2018, the committee has made 23 recommendations to the government.
“The government’s response to the Committee’s reports has been limited,” notes the report.
“The committee recognizes that the government is not required to respond to its recommendations; however, the Committee believes that regular and substantive responses would contribute to strengthening the accountability and increasing the transparency of the security and intelligence community.”
NSICOP was set up to to give certain parliamentarians access to top-secret materials and to allow them to question leaders in the security and intelligence community. It meets in secret and reports directly to the prime minister on national security matters.