OTTAWA — A House of Commons committee is recommending harsher penalties for whistleblowers, among a host of other changes, as part of a probe into Canada’s foreign interference problem.
Cracking down on those who leak national secrets was prominent within the 22 recommendations in a report handed down Tuesday by the House Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics — as were suggestions urging the government to create a foreign agent registry as soon as possible.
That recommendation, said committee Vice-Chair René Villemure, came courtesy of the Bloc Québécois, who intend on tabling their own foreign registry bill in the House of Commons.
“We wanted to make sure that this happens in the short run,” he told reporters.
In a statement released by the Bloc, the party took exception with the Trudeau Liberals’ waning enthusiasm for creating such a registry — which they promised back in May.
Villemure said the Bloc’s bill will take the best aspects of registry rules created by other countries and expand on them.
While directing specific inquires to Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc — who was not at Tuesday’s press conference — committee Vice-Chair Mona Fortier said establishing such a registry is on the government’s radar, but couldn’t speak on when it would happen.
“The government wants to do it the right way and ensure there are no unintended consequences for minority groups,” she said.
“The will is there, but the timeline — I cannot answer that question, and the committee did not look into that process.”
The government carried out two months of consultations on creating a foreign agent registry earlier this year.
Both the United States and Australia both have their own forms of such a registry, requiring people and groups acting on behalf of foreign states to register with the government.
The committee also called for stronger rules and penalties for “illicit disclosure” of national security intelligence.
Many of the high-profile stories broken over the past year concerning Chinese foreign interference relied upon information from unauthorized sources within Canada’s intelligence community.
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Both Villemure and Fortier told reporters that the committee started its work in August 2022, before the high-profile stories based on leaked intelligence were published.
“Why do people leak? It’s probably because they feel that things aren’t moving fast enough, and in their own heart usually, they want to achieve what they’re working for, so they leak (intelligence,)” Villemure said.
“This is a serious offence to national security, and at the same time is very useful — as an ethics specialist I would not approve of leaks in general, but I’m forced to say that in this case, it helped a lot.”
Villemure said the focus should be broader than just identifying and punishing those responsible, but fixing the problem outright.
“What we should be looking at is not trying to find who leaked in order to punish, but instead working on what was leaked and fix it,” he said.
Other recommendations in the report include urging Canada’s intelligence agencies to increase information sharing and provide better training for parliamentarians and civil servants, as well as incorporating offences related to foreign interference into Canada’s Criminal Code.
Currently, no specific offences exist within the Criminal Code regarding foreign interference.
The government has 60 days to draft a reply to the report.
In a dissenting opinion from the Conservatives, the party accused Liberal, NDP and Bloc committee members of suppressing information for partisan reasons, and accused the government of actively ignoring foreign meddling in Canadian affairs.
“Conservatives note that the Liberal government knew the Communist Party of China was interfering in Canada’s democracy for years and had they not been the beneficiary of this foreign interference the Liberals may have taken action, rather than reacting to sustained public and political pressure,” the report’s introduction reads.
The report also points out that numerous questions remain unanswered concerning the Chinese government’s $140,000 donation to the Trudeau Foundation.
“It is clear, through testimony heard by the Committee from current and former Members of the Trudeau foundation that the foundation had no bylaws for foreign interference, no oversight of donations, and no due diligence done of donations,” the report reads.
“Seemingly, it was the perfect conduit for a foreign dictatorship to influence Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.”
The Conservatives proffered a lone recommendation in their report, that the Trudeau Foundation be the subject of a forensic audit by the government of Canada.
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