The federal government’s proposed foreign influence registry has the potential to be abused against ethnic minorities in Canada, says Liberal MP Chandra Arya. And British Columbia ISG Senator Yuen Pau Woo says it will ‘do more harm than good.’ If the e-petition garners 500 signatures, the government will have to respond.
by Abbas Rana
An Ottawa Liberal MP has sponsored a parliamentary e-petition calling on the government to reconsider starting the foreign influence registry, saying it will not address the issue of foreign interference in Canada and could be used by Canadian intelligence agencies against visible minority communities.
“A registry is a misleading way to identify sources of foreign influence,” states the petition sponsored by three-term Liberal MP Chandra Arya (Nepean, Ont.). “It is difficult to distinguish between positive and malign foreign influence, which goes well beyond agents who are acting for foreign governments. Also, a foreign influence registry poses a serious harassment and stigmatization risk for racialized communities.”
The petition, e-4395, went online on Friday, April 14, and had received 237 signatures by Saturday afternoon. The petition will stay online until July 13. According to the House of Commons website, e-petitions are a tool to draw the government’s attention to a specific issue of public interest. Canadians cannot directly start a petition and need an MP to sponsor it on their behalf.
If a petition is endorsed by 500 Canadians, the government is required to respond within 45 days.
“A broad definition of foreign influence could infringe on Canadians’ Charter rights while stifling international business and civil society links that are beneficial for Canada,” the e-petition sponsored by Arya says. “It could also create a chill within vulnerable communities, leading them to withdraw from civic engagement and public service, which will result in their further marginalization.”
China’s attempted meddling in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections has been rocking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) government for months. The government has been under intense scrutiny for failing to take appropriate actions to stop the attempted interference because, according to suggestions in the media reports, it benefited the incumbent government. Yesterday, Katie Telford, chief of staff to the prime minister, appeared before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee to testify on this issue, but did not answer most of the questions from opposition parties citing national security reasons.
Based on unnamed intelligence sources, The Globe and Mail and Global News have been alleging that China’s preferred outcome in the last two elections was to get a Liberal minority government. China has denied allegations that it meddled in Canadian elections.
As a result of this controversy, Han Dong (Don Valley North, Ont.) stepped down from the Liberal caucus and Ontario PC MPP Vincent Kye resigned from the provincial caucus. Both Dong and Kye have vigorously denied the allegations. Dong has filed a defamation lawsuit against Global News.
Trudeau has appointed former governor general David Johnston to decide whether an independent inquiry is needed to investigate this issue. The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and the National Intelligence and Review Agency are also studying this issue.
Last month, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.) launched a consultation process for the Foreign Influence Transparency Registry to receive input from Canadians, which will close on May 9. The registry is aimed to halt foreign governments from interfering in Canadian affairs. Australia and the United States already have similar registries in place. These registries require individuals to be open in disclosing their work promoting the interests of other countries. People who fail to disclose their work could face fines or prison time.
In an interview with The Hill Times, Arya said that he decided to sponsor this petition after five individuals from different visible minority communities approached him with the petition. He said he agreed with the issues raised in the petition. Arya declined to say if he raised this issue within caucus, or how many other Liberal MPs are against this registry. He stated categorically that he and the petitioners are against all kinds of foreign interference in Canada. However, Arya said, he believes that a Foreign Influence Transparency Registry won’t help stop foreign interference andcould potentially be misused by intelligence agencies against Canadians, especially from visible minority communities.
“They [Intelligence agents] can knock on your door, they can say that, ‘You may have to register under this foreign influence registry. However, let us have a talk, a coffee chat to check whether you still need to register or not,’ ” said Arya. “At the end of our conversation, we may determine that you need not have to register.’ … This tool has got potential to be abused against ethnic minorities in Canada.”
He said that a visit by an intelligence agency official to a Canadian’s house, especially a racialized Canadian, is a stressful event. After these kinds of visits, people pull back from civic engagements and from the political process. Because of the ongoing focus on the attempted foreign interference in Canadian elections, he said, he has heard reports that federal public servants of Chinese heritage are unwilling to be part of boards of directors of any Chinese community association for fear that they might one day come under law enforcement scrutiny. Arya said that rather than starting this registry, the government should strengthen the already existing laws to address the issue of foreign interference in Canada. He also pointed out that this year is the 100-year anniversary of the Chinese Immigration Act or the “Chinese Exclusion Act” that was aimed at restricting Chinese people from emigrating to Canada. Chinese who wanted to emigrate to Canada had to pay a head tax between 1885-1923, and was meant to discourage Chinese immigration. Chinese immigrants who were already in Canada were required to register and carry a photo ID anywhere in the country. In 2006, the Government of Canada officially apologized for the head tax. Given Canada’s history and the ongoing spotlight on Chinese Canadians, Arya said the proposed registry is not the right way to address this issue.
Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo, who served as the facilitator of the Independent Senators Group from 2017 to 2021, agreed with Arya that the registry would do “more harm than good” and said it would penalize racialized Canadians. Woo said he’s working on preparing a submission to the public safety minister to argue against it and said that before putting together the wording of this petition, the petitioners consulted him.
“In public policy, we try to weigh the benefits against the costs: This particular piece of public policy will result in costs that far outweigh the very meagre benefits that it might produce,” said Woo.
“The petition specifically talks about the chilling effect and the marginalization of communities. Under the threat of stigmatization, they will choose to disengage with the political system and disengage with civil society, they will retreat into their shell, which is exactly the opposite of what you want minority communities to do in this country,” said Woo.
The petition says that if the government still wants to proceed with the registry, the law should apply to all countries equally.
“If a registry is necessary, it should apply to all countries equally and be based on specific arrangements such as monetary payment between individuals or organizations and a foreign state, rather than on hypothetical or presumed arrangements,” the petition states. “Registration should only apply in the case of lobbying government officials and politicians, and not for private activities or general communications. It should not be based on country of origin, ethnicity, business and civil society affiliations, and most importantly, on one’s views.”
Petition to the Government of Canada
“We, the undersigned, citizens and residents of Canada, call upon the Government of Canada to reconsider its proposed Foreign Influence Transparency Registry.
“If current legislation is not adequate to deal with intimidation by foreign actors, the government should consider instead strengthening these laws. We do not believe, however, that a foreign influence registry will meaningfully address intimidation of Canadians and other kinds of foreign interference. A registry is a misleading way to identify sources of foreign influence. It is difficult to distinguish between positive and malign foreign influence, which goes well beyond agents who are acting for foreign governments. Also, a foreign influence registry poses a serious harassment and stigmatization risk for racialized communities. A broad definition of foreign influence could infringe on Canadians’ charter rights while stifling international business and civil society links that are beneficial for Canada. It could also create a chill within vulnerable communities, leading them to withdraw from civic engagement and public service, which will result in their further marginalization. However, if a registry is necessary, it should apply to all countries equally and be based on specific arrangements such as monetary payment between individuals or organizations and a foreign state, rather than on hypothetical or presumed arrangements. Registration should only apply in the case of lobbying government officials and politicians, and not for private activities or general communications. It should not be based on country of origin, ethnicity, business and civil society affiliations, and most importantly, on one’s views.”
This article was first published by The Hill Times.
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