Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday committed to new steps his government will take to combat foreign interference, including additional independent investigations and further steps toward establishing a foreign agents registry.
But none of the steps in Trudeau’s multipronged approach included a public inquiry, which Opposition leaders had signalled earlier in the day was the only method of investigation they would support.
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Instead, the decision on whether or not to call such an inquiry will be made by an independent, special rapporteur who will have a “wide mandate” to oversee the new probes and make recommendations on how Ottawa can better combat foreign interference and inform the public about such attempts.
The determination will be one of the first tasks of the rapporteur’s mandate, Trudeau said.
“We will abide by their recommendation,” he told reporters at a news conference on Parliament Hill Monday evening, adding “an eminent Canadian” will be appointed to the position in the coming days.
“I know there are people out there who don’t believe this is enough. I get that. This is why we’re entrusting further work to someone impartial.”
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Trudeau said he spoke to the heads of both the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the independent National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) and urged them to undertake “urgent work” within their mandates to study foreign interference.
NSICOP includes MPs from multiple parties, as well as one senator. NSIRA, made up of independent experts, is tasked with reviewing the actions of Canada’s intelligence agencies.
Trudeau also said he has tasked Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino to launch public consultations on setting up a new public registry for agents who work on behalf of foreign states, similar to ones established in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
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Mendicino will also establish “a counter-foreign interference coordinator” to oversee the work and recommendations coming from the various agencies and committees.
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The Liberals have been under immense pressure to explain what it knew about foreign interference in the 2021 election after the Globe and Mail reported last month that intelligence sources said China attempted to interfere in that campaign to help the Liberals win another minority government.
That report came after months of revelations from Motorcycle accident toronto today about allegations of Chinese interference in the 2019 election.
Trudeau’s announcement came hours after Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh suggested anything less than a public inquiry into foreign interference would not provide Canadians with the transparency they deserve.
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Both NSICOP and NSIRA are given access to classified and top secret intelligence information that bars them from doing their work in public. NSICOP files a report from their work that then goes to the Prime Minister’s Office, which can redact any information in that report before it is tabled in the House of Commons.
NSIRA will also provide a public report of their assessments of the actions taken by government bodies handling intelligence on the matter of foreign interference.
NDP House Leader Peter Julien said in a statement after Trudeau’s announcement that NSICOP is not “an acceptable substitute for a public inquiry,” calling it “partisan” and that it works behind closed doors.
In a statement of his own, Poilievre also said the new measures fall short of an inquiry, which he noted is supported by a majority of parties in Parliament.
“This is a secret committee, with secret hearings, secret evidence, and secret conclusions — all controlled by the Prime Minister,” he said, referring to NSICOP.
“A so-called ‘special rapporteur’ hand-picked by the Prime Minister is not the same as a true independent inquiry,” he added.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said Trudeau “is mocking elected officials and Parliament” by ignoring their calls for an inquiry.
“Justin Trudeau prefers to shelter himself from public opinion and the media by choosing shadow rather than light on an assault on democracy,” he said in a statement in French.
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When asked by reporters earlier Monday if Conservatives would accept being briefed by security officials regarding the allegations first reported by Motorcycle accident toronto today and the Globe and Mail over recent months, Poilievre said that would be a “trap.”
“What they would do is bring opposition MPs or leaders into a room, give them some information and then swear them to secrecy so they couldn’t ever speak about it again,” he said.
“Effectively that would be a trick to try and prevent anyone debating the subject anymore, so no, we’re not going to have a situation where Conservatives are told that they have to be quiet about this scandal because they’re sworn to secrecy.”
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The Opposition’s latest calls come as the RCMP says it has opened an investigation into possible violations of the Security of Information Act concerning recent media reports about alleged foreign interference, and that its probe is not focused on any one security agency.
The reports from Motorcycle accident toronto today and the Globe and Mail — which detailed multiple alleged attempts by China to interfere in Canadian society and elections — have also called into question how much Trudeau and Canadian officials may have known about the alleged interference attempts, and whether the allegations should have been shared with the public earlier.
Blanchet criticized the RCMP’s investigation into the leaks from whistleblowers as distracting from the issue of foreign interference.
Last Thursday, the members of the procedure and House affairs committee investigating the allegations called for a public inquiry into the matter.
Conservative and Bloc Québécois members of the procedure and House affairs committee voted in favour of an NDP motion that seeks to launch “a national public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canada’s democratic system.”
The NDP now plans to bring a similar motion to the House of Commons as a whole.
— with files from the Canadian Press
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