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Canada invites G7 ministers to meeting on tackling disinformation

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OTTAWA –

Canada plans to host a gathering of representatives from the G7 next year to develop new programs and tools to stem the spread of disinformation.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino extended the invitation to his counterparts this week at a meeting in Germany of interior ministers from G7 countries.

Mendicino said participants began exploring ways they could work more closely together to fight propaganda and other forms of false information online by improving digital literacy and equipping citizens with the means to find trustworthy information.

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“The G7 is the flagship for democracy, and it gives us a forum in which we can meet these challenges together and create a world that is more secure, that is more inclusive, and that is more prosperous,” he said in an interview.

The G7 countries devised the Rapid Response Mechanism at the group’s 2018 summit in Charlevoix, Que., as a means of strengthening co-ordination to identify and respond to a range of evolving foreign threats to democracy.

The group, which includes a Canadian unit housed at Global Affairs, has focused on countering foreign state-sponsored disinformation.

The Canadian unit detected what might have been a Chinese Communist Party information operation that aimed to discourage Canadians of Chinese heritage from voting for the Conservatives in the last federal election.

Mendicino said the Rapid Response Mechanism proved useful following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when Moscow notoriously claimed it was “denazifying” its neighbour.

“We used the Rapid Response Mechanism to call that out and to condemn that,” he said. “But the question now is, how can we continue to leverage that mechanism, that protocol within the G7?”

Mendicino said democracies also need to engage with social media firms and big tech to better understand how information is presented and make sure “that they are, as much as possible, adhering to the terms and conditions of their own user agreements,” calling it a long-standing challenge.

Disinformation continues to spread online in various social media platforms at a challenging pace, posing a pervasive threat to the economy, academic spheres, democratic institutions and the healthy exchange of ideas, he said.

A G7 forum on the issues in Canada would be a means of trying to “flip the script, and to get ahead of the curve of disinformation,” Mendicino said.

“This is where we think that Canada and the G7 can show leadership.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.

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Advocates criticize slow expansion of needle exchange program in federal prisons

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The federal prison needle exchange program is failing because of a poor rollout by the Correctional Service of Canada and a lack of improvement since it was introduced four years ago, health advocates say.

Inmates at nine of the 43 federal prisons have had access to sterile equipment for drug use since the program last expanded in 2019, and last summer officials said it would be implemented across the country.

The HIV Legal Network published a report this week that found the program is still inaccessible to most people and has not expanded beyond those nine institutions.

In June, only 53 people — of nearly 13,000 offenders in federal custody — were participating in the program.

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Sandra Ka Hon Chu, co-executive director of the HIV Legal Network, said multiple layers of institutional approval and stigma are key reasons for the low participation rates.

“A lot of people who want to access the program because there’s injection drug use happening inside prisons are not able to access it because of the multiple barriers to participation,” she said.

The federal government said it is committed to expanding the program but that COVID-19 caused a delay in its plans.

A June 15 briefing note prepared for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said consultations were held in early 2020 to expand the program to two more institutions, but “following delays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, re-engagement with these sites is required.”

The note, obtained through an access-to-information request, also said Correctional Service Canada would prepare plans for additional sites to be confirmed this fall.

Correctional Service spokeswoman Esme Bailey said in an emailed statement that the department is still committed to putting the program in more prisons and consultations continue.

For people behind bars, participation in the program requires approval that includes an evaluation by a nurse and a threat assessment approved by a warden. No reasons are provided as to why an application is given the green light or not.

Ka Hon Chu says the process creates an “extremely high barrier” that dissuades people from applying “because there is zero guarantee of actually being accepted.”

The HIV Legal Network study, which was done with the help of Toronto Metropolitan University, said the assessment process is based on “security rather than clinical need” and the program requires daily inspections to verify equipment is being used correctly.

Participants are given a kit containing one syringe, one cooker, three water bottles, one vitamin C and filters. They are required to always keep the kit visible in their cell and visit a nurse when replacement pieces are needed.

Ka Hon Chu said participants are effectively “outing” themselves as drug users and risk being stigmatized by other inmates, correctional staff and the parole board.

“People were concerned that they would get more heavily surveilled as a result of their participation, that they would (be) more heavily scrutinized,” she said, noting one of the most common concerns the group heard is that people may be denied access to other programs as a result of taking part in the needle exchange.

The report recommends enhancing confidentiality by removing the need for daily visual inspections and by offering more discreet distribution points.

It also said a lack of knowledge about the program is affecting uptake.

Advocates argue in the absence of adequate programming aimed at harm reduction, the risk of HIV infection will continue to rise because people are relying on using unsanctioned, unsafe means of using drugs while behind bars.

“The concern is that there’ll be more equipment floating around in prisons, but the reality is that there is a lot of injection equipment already in prisons that (is) just not regulated and it’s not sterile,” said Ka Hon Chu.

The correctional investigator said in his latest annual report, released last summer, that the needle exchange program “exists more in name than in practice” because of low participation rates.

Ivan Zinger, who has raised the same concern in previous reports, also said the Correctional Services drug strategy needs substantive reforms.

He said the culture in Canadian prisons “remains mired in a prohibitive and repressive mindset.”

“Maintaining a zero-tolerance approach to drugs that relies on ever more intrusive detection, disciplinary and repressive measures — strip-searches, body cavity scanning, cell searches, charges, urinalysis testing — is a costly game of diminishing returns,” the report said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

— With files from Stephanie Taylor

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Canada struggles with curbing foreign interference: ‘Often we cannot do anything’

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That was the assessment given to a House of Commons committee earlier this month by Canada’s deputy commissioner of elections, referring to 23 files their office received about potential foreign interference in the country’s two most recent elections.

The details of the complaints, lodged by members of the public, are not widely known. But they have not resulted in any consequences to date.
And while the RCMP confirmed this week that they are probing “broader foreign actor interference activities,” the force noted that the investigations are among the most sensitive files currently handled by the force. That’s likely not only due to the political sensitivities involved, but the sophistication of some of the actors believed to be exerting the influence.

Some of these reported influence activities don’t break the letter of federal elections law, while others fall outside the jurisdiction of the Commissioner of Canada Elections — such as the deliberate sowing of misinformation.

But deputy commissioner Marc Chénier’s comments suggest gaps in efforts to curb foreign influence in Canadian elections. Canadian security and intelligence agencies are increasingly sounding the alarm about the issue, and one country in particular: China.

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“Beijing starts off by wanting to suppress, to the extent it can, anything negative about itself,” Dick Fadden, Canada’s former spymaster and a national security advisor to two prime ministers.

“It doesn’t like negative press, it doesn’t like negative bills before Parliament or a legislature. It wants to be able to have people in place who will not do negative things, or who will fight negative things.”

According to the elections watchdog, the complaints against “foreign components” can pose significant hurdles to their investigations, and noted the challenge is “not unique” to their office.

Some activities, like spreading misinformation on social media platforms, fall outside the commissioner’s jurisdiction. And without a foreign agents registry — which would require anyone acting on behalf of a foreign power to publicly declare their work — much of it goes unnoticed by the wider public.

“We have to compare this kind of activity with other activities with foreign involvement that are more concrete. Terrorism, for example, there’s a bomb involved, there’s something concrete,” Fadden said. “You can pursue it; you can find it.

“Here, it’s much more difficult. You can’t have (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) investigating all constituencies in Canada for this kind of thing, that would be an affront to democracy in itself.”

Questions about foreign interference have once again become an issue of debate in the House of Commons after Global News reported earlier in November that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet were briefed in January 2022 about a clandestine network guided by the Chinese consulate in Toronto.

According to Global News sources, this loosely affiliated group comprised politicians and aides from the Liberals and Conservatives, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempting to place people sympathetic to its agenda in political offices to influence government policy.

Other intelligence sources told Global that the consulate disbursed $250,000 through proxies to the network, which included 11 or more candidates standing for election in 2019.

While the briefings did not allege that Beijing was directly funding those candidates, that’s how the issue has been interpreted in the political debate in the House of Commons.

“I do not have any information, nor have I been briefed on any federal candidates receiving any money from China,” Trudeau said in response to Global’s reporting.

“The Prime Minister has used words to obscure the answer. He says that there was not interference in a significant way that would have changed the outcome (of the 2019 election),” charged Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre on Tuesday.

“Was there any interference of any kind?”

“Interference in Canadians’ affairs by foreign powers is an ongoing thing,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded.

“Whether it is cyber interference, whether it is interference with communities in Canada, whether it is attempts to influence the media, these are things that take place on an ongoing basis and things that our intelligence agencies and police agencies work very hard to counter. However, Canadians can be reassured that the integrity of our elections was not compromised.”

The Canadian government started taking election interference seriously in 2017 — largely in response to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and questions about Russian interference. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped key ministers to monitor and counter foreign interference, and the country’s spy and law enforcement agencies were tasked with ensuring the integrity of the 2019 and 2021 elections.

Despite the intelligence agencies’ attention — and the documented evidence of pervasive foreign influence in Canadian domestic affairs — there have been no charges, and senior bureaucrats have determined the activity merits publicly warning of Canadian voters.

Trudeau has focused his responses to Global News’ reporting on the fact that senior officials — including Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault — have confidence in the integrity of recent elections.

But both things can be true at the same time — that the overall integrity of the vote in 2019 was not compromised, and foreign powers attempted to influence the results in specific ridings.

That there were foreign influence operations targeting the 2019 election is not in dispute. A February 2021 document from the federal Public Safety department reviewed by Global News stated the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) investigated multiple foreign “threats” during that election, and provided classified briefings about the operations to a panel of senior bureaucrats tasked with safeguarding the election.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) found that the service strayed from the law in attempting to disrupt some of those perceived threats.

Documents tabled by the RCMP with a Commons committee this week suggest the national police force is currently probing foreign interference, but declined to share details about their ongoing investigations.

“Foreign actor interference investigations are some of the most sensitive national security investigations the RCMP currently conducts, and it must make every effort to protect the integrity of these investigations,” RCMP Chief Brenda Lucki told the Procedure and House Affairs committee, which is investigating questions about foreign influence operations, in a letter.

Fadden told Global News that he doesn’t believe security and intelligence agencies have enough “tools” to pursue complex foreign influence investigations.

“They certainly have a general awareness. Do they have all the tools (they need)? I’m not sure,” he said.

Another former national security advisor to Trudeau, Vicent Rigby, has advocated for a federal registry of Canadians engaged by a foreign power to act on its behalf.

Similar registries have been put in place by close security allies, including the United States and Australia. The United Kingdom recently proposed its own version.

“As an open democracy, Canada has found itself susceptible to interference from adversaries such as China, Russia and Iran, but also from allies or partners such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and India. Such interference can include threats, intimidation, and harassment of Canadian citizens and permanent residents, in some cases pressuring them to stop criticizing the human rights and other policies of those states,” read a recent report on Canada’s national security policy, co-led by Rigby.

“While Canadian law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been aware of these concerns for years, individuals who face such harassment are often bounced between local police, the RCMP, CSIS, and other organizations, and express frustration that their appeals are lost interagency processes.”

Former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu proposed a Canadian version of a foreign agents registry in April 2021. The bill went nowhere — dying after first reading in the House of Commons, and Chiu went on to lose his Richmond, B.C. riding in the 2021 election.

Chiu’s riding was one of 13 the Conservatives suspected was targeted by Beijing, and Chiu claimed he was the target of a “smear campaign” during the election as a result of his push for a registry.

Even with more transparency around foreign interventions, or more powers for security and intelligence agencies to investigate these threats, it will be difficult for Canadian authorities to hold determined and sophisticated foreign actors from attempting to influence the country’s democratic process.

“Tracking the financial flows ranges from very straightforward to impossible,” said Insight Threat Intelligence’s Jessica Davis, a former Canadian security analyst specializing in financial intelligence.

“If they don’t feel like they’re breaking any laws, and they’re not concerned about the perception of foreign influence or foreign interference, they could be doing something as simple as sending an electronic funds transfer … to the candidate’s campaign. If you have a warrant, that is a clear, very easy thing to track.”

“If they are concerned about people knowing about it, and traceability, then we start getting into the realm of potential third parties, front companies, front accounts, cash transactions. It really ranges in terms of sophistication from absolutely none to you will only ever have a theory about this and won’t be able to prove it,” Davis added.

A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said Beijing “never interferes in other countries’ internal affairs,” and suggested allegations China interfered in the 2019 federal election are “completely groundless.”

With files from Global News’ wire services.

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Canada's tourism minister predicts industry will help offset tough economic times | Globalnews.ca – Global News

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Canada’s tourism minister is predicting turbulent economic times are ahead but says the industry will make a strong comeback despite difficult pandemic years.

Randy Boissonnault joined hundreds of business leaders from across the province on Wednesday for the 2022 Tourism Summit in Halifax.

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Boissonnault says Canada is heading into choppy waters when it comes to the economy, but the tourism industry will help offset the effects.

He cites the war in Ukraine, ongoing supply chain issues and the rise in inflation as some of the factors pointing to a slowing of the economy.

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He says Halifax’s tourism is already in a good place to help weather the storm.

“Nova Scotia is doing really well just from the hotel occupancy rate,” according to Boissonnault. “Nova Scotia hotels are at about 71 per cent, which is higher than the Canadian average, which is about 65 per cent. So that tells you there’s something special in Nova Scotia. People want to see the province. They want to come to Halifax. It’s a regional powerhouse city.”

John Simon is the president of CanadVac Travel Services. He’s not so sure the industry has fully recovered from the pandemic.

“I wouldn’t say I’m 100 per cent convinced of that yet,” Simon says.

“A lot of the tourism operators have come through with significant challenges in terms of debt load, making it through two years and more of no income. Of course, the federal programs helped in terms of making it through but they also put them in a position of a lot of debt. So a recession on top of that debt – even if the tourism industry is rebounding – is going to make it challenging for those tourism operators over the longer term to survive.”


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Maritimes wrapping up 2022 cruise ship season


The President of Tourism HR Canada says another problem is that the industry has lost a significant chunk of its workforce since the pandemic.

“It’s a real significant challenge for the industry for sure,” Philip Mondor says. “Although there is a lot of demand for growth and recovery, we’re hampered by the fact that we do not have enough workers to fill all of the roles we have.”

There were 2.1 million workers pre-pandemic, according to Mondor. That number is now down to 1.67 million workers.

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Scott MacAulay with the Inverary Resort in Cape Breton says his business has had a terrific year and he’s optimistic for the future.

“There’s a pent-up demand for travel,” he says. “People seem to be able to find a way with the product we have in Nova Scotia with the great outdoors and lots of wide-open spaces. People feel comfortable and safe.”

He recommends if a business is struggling to try and adapt to what people are looking for after pandemic years, including offering more outdoor activities all season.

&copy 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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