Liberals begin public consultations on setting up a foreign influence registry

Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 7.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The Liberal government is beginning consultations to create a foreign influence registry, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino announced Friday, but he refused to say when the measure could be up and running.

The government has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks over allegations in media reports that they did not act when they were warned China was trying to interfere in the last two federal elections. The reports by Global News and The Globe and Mail cite unnamed security sources and leaks of highly classified documents.

“There are few greater challenges that we face than foreign interference,” Mr. Mendicino said at a news conference on Parliament Hill.

“As a government, we must keep our eyes wide open.”

The registry would require people who act on behalf of a foreign state to advance its goals to disclose their ties to the government employing them. It would be another tool, Mendicino said, to prevent other countries from meddling in Canada’s affairs.

The idea of a registry, which exists in Australia and the United States, is to make those dealings more transparent, with the possibility of fines or even prison time for failing to comply.

The consultations will begin Friday and run until May 9, including through a virtual portal on the Department of Public Safety’s website.

Mr. Mendicino signalled late last year that the Liberal government wanted to hear from experts and the broader public, including members of affected communities, about creating a registry.

Speaking to reporters Friday, he provided no details about when a registry could be operating, including whether it could be in place before the next federal election. The timing of that vote depends in part on the minority government’s supply and confidence agreement with the federal New Democrats.

One of the goals of the consultation is to “broadly engage all Canadians in a conversation about how to protect our institutions from foreign interference in an inclusive manner that respects the diversity of our population and, of course, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he said.

International Trade Minister Mary Ng, who is of Chinese descent, said it is important to create the registry in such a way that does not stoke anti-Asian racism.

“We have a great responsibility to ensure that we are not unfairly or unintentionally creating a cloud that hovers over an entire community that is feeling incredibly uncertain and who have felt the discomfort of unconscious bias that became very conscious in the early days of the pandemic,” said Ms. Ng, who joined Mr. Mendicino at the announcement.

She said there have been examples of the Canadian government targeting members of the Asian community, including the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

On Friday, Both Ms. Ng and Mr. Mendicino accused Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre of stoking division on the issue of election inference and not being mindful enough of anti-Asian racism, which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Poilievre has made a point of criticizing China’s regime by referring to its leadership as “Beijing’s Communist government,” rather than its formal title of the Chinese Communist Party, and said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has failed to respond to the warnings of meddling and intimidation from Chinese diaspora communities.

He has also called out Mr. Trudeau for announcing plans to appoint a special rapporteur to probe the issue of foreign interference and ask a special security committee of parliamentarians to investigate further, saying both fall short of the public inquiry Canadians deserve.

Mr. Mendicino said the government could call an inquiry, but first it plans to allow the current reviews it has called to lead the way.

The federal NDP and Bloc Quebecois are also pushing for a public inquiry.