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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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Hailed as green energy source, northern Quebec lithium project divides Cree

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NEMASKA, QUE. — Type the word “Nemaska” into a search engine and most results refer to Nemaska Lithium, the company that sought bankruptcy protection in 2019 before being partly bought out by the Quebec government’s investment agency. The episode resulted in tens of thousands of small investors losing significant savings.

However, Nemaska is above all a Cree community in the heart of the boreal forest, more than 1,500 kilometres from Montreal. They share their territory with a wide variety of species, and caribou herds have long visited the area, drawn by its abundance of lichen.

These fragile ecosystems are home to a multitude of threatened species that will soon have to deal with new visitors: starting in 2025, approximately 15 heavy trucks a day will roar through these ancestral hunting grounds carrying the thousands of tonnes of ore that Nemaska Lithium plans to mine.

According to the promoters, the region contains some of the world’s largest deposits of spodumene, a rock from which lithium — key to the energy transition and the electrification of transport networks — is extracted.

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Nemaska Lithium describes itself as a corporation that “intends to facilitate access to green energy, for the benefit of humanity.”

The Whabouchi open pit mine will be located about 30 kilometres from the village of Nemaska, in the watershed of the Rupert River, considered one of Quebec’s ecological gems.

“If the water becomes contaminated by the mine, I don’t see how we can limit the damage to the food chain,” says Thomas Jolly, who was chief of Nemaska from 2015 to 2019, stressing the importance of fishing to his community.

Nemaska means “Place of Plentiful Fish,” and that is what led the Cree to build their community here in 1979 after a proposed Hydro-Québec dam project threatened to flood their ancestral village. (In the end, the Crown corporation chose to build its reservoirs elsewhere, and the flooding of Old Nemaska never occurred.)

“At the time, the Department of Indian Affairs wanted to impose another site on us, but it was partly a swamp … so we chose to settle here instead, where it’s dry, in a place where there is everything we need to hunt and fish,” Jolly said in an interview in Nemaska.

Various other Hydro-Québec projects have led to an increase in mercury levels in lakes and rivers near Nemaska, to the point where for some bodies of water, public health authorities recommend eating no more than two fish of certain species per month.

According to public health data, one of the waterways with the highest mercury levels is the Nemiscau River, which is also set to receive mine effluent from Nemaska Lithium.

“How much more contamination can these streams handle?” Jolly wonders.

He explains that history has taught him to be wary of the studies carried out by the mining company on the environmental impacts of lithium extraction. “Hydro-Québec said they didn’t know (the mercury contamination) would happen,” he says. “Come on!”

The construction of the mine will cause the elimination of a lake and a stream in addition to modifying several other bodies of water. In total, the negative effects on fish and fish habitat are estimated at 54,600 square metres, according to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, and Nemaska Lithium is working to implement a compensation plan for this loss of habitat.

The federal government’s approval of the mine comes with dozens of conditions, including protecting water quality. In an interview with The Canadian Press, Vincent Perron, the director of environment and stakeholder relations at Nemaska Lithium, says the company has “a very comprehensive and rigorous water quality monitoring program.”

Perron explains that Nemaska Lithium, among other things, is committed to verifying every three years “the level of heavy metals in the flesh of fish, starting during the construction of the mine and until the end of a five-year period following its closure.”

He stresses that “a water treatment plant will be installed to treat the excess drainage water before it is released into the Nemiscau River.”

Company documents show that 10 species of mammals with a special status — either threatened, vulnerable or at risk — may frequent the mine area, including the wolverine and the woodland caribou as well as various species of birds, such as the golden eagle.

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada cited potential “habitat loss and fragmentation” for those species but said the impact would not be significant because of the availability of similar habitat nearby and mitigation measures proposed by the proponent.

For Jolly, regardless of mitigation measures, “it’s obvious” that animals will be negatively affected by the blasting, the extraction and transportation of ore. He wants the mine administrators to consider traditional Indigenous knowledge and not just “book science” in managing the risks.

“You, people from the south, when you talk about animals and plants, you use the word species,” he says, “but we call them educators.”

Nemaska Lithium says it wants its mine project to set a benchmark for environmental responsibility. Powered by renewable electricity from Hydro-Québec, it will be one of “the greenest lithium producers in the world,” says Perron.

The project will have “one of the lowest intensities of production in the world in terms of CO2 equivalent emissions from processing and transportation combined,” he said. “It is nearly three times lower than the global average, and more than six times lower than China.”

However, Jolly stresses that hydro power is not as green as some people make it out to be. The environmental impacts of large dams are considerable, he says, citing examples of entire communities that have had to relocate because of flooding. Hunting grounds were submerged and mercury levels shot up in fish, among other upheavals in the James Bay Cree’s traditional way of life.

The Quebec government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Nemaska Lithium. Premier François Legault, who wants Quebec to export electric vehicle batteries worldwide and be a leader in 21st-century transportation, considers the company “an important component of the green economy.”

Jolly questions why lithium mined from Cree lands should be a central part of the government’s plan to combat climate change. “Who is responsible (for the climate crisis)?” he asked. “Is it up to us to pay and suffer for what they have done?”

He says the project was approved by the band council without properly consulting the population, a critique echoed by another former chief, George Wapachee. In his book “Going Home”, published last fall, Wapachee writes that the decision to accept the lithium mine “was made without the approval of community members.”

But while many in Nemaska are worried about the mine, it also gives hope to those who see it as an important tool for economic development. At a hearing in 2015, former Chief Matthew Wapachee presented a petition that included about 100 signatures in support of the project.

“Nemaska Lithium should be commended in recognizing and ensuring that this partnership is founded on mutual trust, protection of the environment and respect of Cree rights and traditional way of life,” Matthew Coon Come, who was then grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, said in a press release at the time.

Even though some in Nemaska say they were not sufficiently informed about the mine project, Nemaska band council spokesperson Laurence Gagnon maintains that the community was regularly consulted at annual general meetings. The council accepted the project “100 per cent for the economic benefits,” she said in an interview.

She said the village is expected to receive annual royalties. “We are talking about several million dollars over 30 years for the community,” she said. This money “returns to our citizens for better infrastructures, better services.”

Current Chief Clarence Jolly was among the elected officials who in 2014 voted to ratify the agreement with the mine.

Over a period of several months, The Canadian Press made numerous attempts to speak with him to discuss the impacts of the mine and its social acceptance, but he declined all requests. Gagnon explained the chief’s refusal by noting that the lithium mine was “a sensitive subject” that he preferred “not to discuss during an election period.”

The chief offered to provide an interview after the community elections later this month.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.

Stéphane Blais received the support of the Michener Foundation, which awarded him a Michener–Deacon Investigative Journalism fellowship in 2022 to report on the impact of lithium extraction in northern Quebec.

 

Stéphane Blais, The Canadian Press

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Indigenous history class for lawyers justified and more common in Canada: experts

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EDMONTON — As Alberta’s Law Society seeks to defend rules that require members to take a course on Indigenous issues, experts say such measures are common elsewhere in Canada and are well-grounded in legal rationale.

“It is increasingly common that law societies across the country are requiring continuing education in certain particular areas” that include cultural awareness, said Trevor Farrow of York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

“The law is continually changing,” said Jeremy Webber of the University of Victoria’s law school.

“The reason for the requirement is to ensure that a lawyer does not continue to practice their area of law as though it were the 1980s.”

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The Law Society of Alberta is to vote Monday on a motion that would suspend the group’s ability to require its members to undertake continuing education. The vote is a response to a petition from 51 lawyers concerned about The Path, a five-part course on Indigenous history and culture that follows one of the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

One signatory to the petition, Glenn Blackett, has called the course “political indoctrination” and compared it to a cancer infecting the roots of Canada’s legal system.

“The vitriol directed at Canadians in The Path seems less likely to promote reconciliation than to promote a distorted perception of history and of the causes of socioeconomic disparity, anger, shame, and enduring Indigenous alienation,” he wrote in the Dorchester Review.

Other signatories have said the course requirement reminds them of their childhood in authoritarian China.

“I understand the concerns around indoctrination and forced speech,” said Farrow.

“I don’t see this as indoctrination. This is continuing education in an area where Canadians have been woefully undereducated. It’s the law society playing part of its role in this larger social project.”

Webber said the complaint’s intent to disallow the society from requiring any continuing education suggests the motivation is elsewhere.

“We’re not talking about indoctrination. We’re talking about an unwillingness to learn.”

British Columbia is one province where the law society requires an Indigenous-themed course.

Other self-regulating professions also require their members to continually upgrade their qualifications.

The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta requires its members to take a certain number of classes every three years. It doesn’t mandate one class for all members, but gives them a range of choices they must pick from.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta requires ongoing education as well as two mandatory courses related to sexual abuse and misconduct.

Requiring such educational updates is part of the bargain such professions make with society, Farrow said.

“The fundamental obligation is to regulate lawyers in the public interest. It’s in the idea of competence and what is required of a modern lawyer where these things rest.”

Nor is it convincing to claim that some types of legal practice don’t intersect with Indigenous issues, Webber said.

“Indigenous people are present in every area of the economy,” he said. “They exercise real control over lands that are important for resource development.”

Then there’s the outsized involvement of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, of which lawyers are an integral part.

“It’s not a secret,” Farrow said. “What the law society and lawyers are going to do about it needs to be part of the solution and I think that’s where some of this comes in.”

About 400 Alberta lawyers have signed a counter-petition in support of the society’s right to require The Path. The law society’s 24 benchers — a type of board of directors — have also publicly opposed the original petition.

Alberta has about 11,000 lawyers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.

 

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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Canada sends military aircraft into Haiti’s skies as gang violence escalates

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OTTAWA — Canada has sent one of its military planes to Haiti to help the country cope with escalating violence.

A joint statement today from National Defence Minister Anita Anand and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says Canada has deployed a CP-140 Aurora aircraft to help “disrupt the activities of gangs” in Haiti.

Gang violence has become a reality for those living in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince since last summer, with hundreds having reportedly been kidnapped and killed.

The UN has also said gangs are restricting access to necessities like health care and water and are also allegedly sexually assaulting women and children.

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Haiti’s political and humanitarian crisis has led to calls for Western countries to intervene, with the Canadian government saying the aircraft deployment comes in direct response to Haiti’s request for help.

The government says the patrol aircraft is currently in Haiti and will remain there “for a number of days” to help with surveillance and intelligence efforts.

The aircraft deployment is the latest step the government has taken to assist Haiti, and not indicative of a military intervention.

Other support measures to date include levying sanctions against individuals it views as responsible for the violence in Haiti.

“The deployment of a Canadian patrol aircraft will strengthen efforts to fight criminal acts of violence and to establish the conditions necessary for a peaceful and prosperous future,” Anand said in Sunday’s statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.

 

The Canadian Press

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