The 2019 election might be long over, but Canada is “increasingly” a target for foreign interference, warns a briefing note prepared for President of the Privy Council Dominic Leblanc.
The heavily redacted package of briefing notes, drafted for the New Brunswick MP around the time of his swearing-in last November, also points to potential “gaps” in the way Canada responded to the fall election.
As part of his new job at the cabinet table, Leblanc is responsible for supporting Canada’s democratic institutions — a role that had its own ministry last session.
While the briefing document is filled with bureaucratic jargon, the warning jumps off the page.
“Foreign adversaries and competitors are increasingly targeting Canada in order to advance their own economic and national security interests,” says the 150-page briefing binder, obtained through access to information.
“Canada, like the majority of Western democracies, is a target of foreign state efforts to interfere with or damage our democratic processes (cyber and non cyber).”
“The word ‘increasing’ is actually very important here,” said former national security analyst Stephanie Carvin, now an associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“It suggests that there may be some metrics by which they’re measuring these things to suggest that, in fact, there’s more attacks in new ways, perhaps even novel attacks that we’re seeing. So that is something that jumps out to me in this report.”
The redacted briefing note doesn’t name the foreign adversaries.
In the lead-up to the Oct. 22 election, sources told CBC News that Canada’s intelligence services were carefully monitoring attempts by six countries — China, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela — to influence the federal election. Top Canadian officials also were warned last year that China and India could try to use their links to diaspora communities in Canada to advance their own agendas.
Traditional spying still ‘the greatest danger’: CSIS
Carvin said those countries are likely still on the list of engaged adversaries, along with Russia and other states in the Middle East.
“Really, there’s a range of interests that foreign actors are interested in. They’re interested in targeting our energy sector, oil and gas. They’re also interested in just discrediting our democracy and democratic processes,” she said.
“In some ways, [they want to] just whip up anger and dissent about a number of issues to get Canadians angry at each other.”
John Townsend, a spokesperson for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said that over the years CSIS has seen multiple instances of foreign states targeting specific communities in Canada through human intelligence operations, the use of state-sponsored or foreign-influenced media and cyberattacks.
“Traditional interference by foreign espionage remains the greatest danger, but interference using cyber means continues to be a growing concern,” he said in an email to CBC.
In an attempt to prevent foreign meddling, the federal government set up an internal team — the “critical election incident public protocol panel” — to publicly sound the alarm if it saw evidence the October federal election was being undermined. It never did.
In the days immediately after the federal election, government officials said they did detect attempts to spread misinformation and disinformation during the election campaign — but not at a level high enough to trigger a public warning.
Ottawa also set up a special task force, known as SITE, which brought together Canada’s national security and intelligence agencies: CSIS, the Communications Security Establishment and the RCMP.
Both teams met regularly throughout the election. The security and intelligence community provided several threat briefings to political parties and ran tabletop exercises, according to the documents.
The briefing binder mentions “remaining gaps” in the way Canada responded to the election, but the examples were blacked out in the redacted pages.
A declassifed report is expected in the coming months.
The briefing package told LeBlanc that, given the pressing timeline of the campaign, most of the government’s pre-election pro-democracy initiatives focused exclusively on the election itself, “leaving broader issues of countering interference in Canada’s democratic institutions — i.e. public servants and government, politicians and political parties, media, the judiciary and others — aside.
“Interference in democratic institutions beyond the electoral cycle will require focused attention.”
A spokesperson for CSE, Canada’s foreign signal intelligence agency, said threats continue to change over time.
“Traditional hostile foreign threats have been persistent over the years, but they are now taking advantage of evolutions in technology,” said Evan Koronewski.
“However, as these threats evolve, so do our abilities to detect them and take preventative action.”
Disinformation should still be a source of concern, says the government memo, but fact-checking and traditional journalism have been helpful so far in debunking and correcting misinformation.
“While these efforts have been sufficient up to this point, a more fractured and divided Canada could make countering misinformation and disinformation more difficult.”
“I think Canadians should always be concerned,” said Carvin. “What we’ve seen in the past, say in 2016, is not what we saw in 2019. It might not be what we see in the future. Canada isn’t immune to these trends.”
LeBlanc was not available for an interview.
“We will continue to be vigilant in combatting any threat. Ensuring the security of our democratic processes is a priority for our government,” said a spokesperson for his office.
OTTAWA — Haven’t you herd? A dramatic tale of 20 escaped cows, nine cowboys and a drone recently unfolded in St-Sévère, Que., and it behooved a Canadian senator to milk it for all it was worth.
Prompting priceless reactions of surprise from her colleagues, Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne recounted the story of the bovine fugitives in the Senate chamber this week — and attempted to make a moo-ving point about politics.
“Honourable senators, usually, when we do tributes here, it is to recognize the achievements of our fellow citizens,” Miville-Dechêne began in French, having chosen to wear a white blouse with black spots for the occasion.
“However, today, I want to express my amused admiration for a remarkably determined herd of cows.”
On a day when senators paid tribute to a late Alberta pastor, the crash of a luxury steamer off the coast of Newfoundland in 1918 and environmental negotiators at the recent climate talks in Egypt, senators seated near Miville-Dechêne seemed udderly taken aback by the lighter fare — but there are no reports that they had beef with what she was saying.
Miville-Dechêne’s storytelling touched on the highlights of the cows’ evasion of authorities after a summer jailbreak — from their wont to jump fences like deer to a local official’s entreaty that she would not go running after cattle in a dress and high heels.
The climax of her narrative came as nine cowboys — eight on horseback, one with a drone — arrived from the western festival in nearby St-Tite, Que., north of Trois-Rivières, and nearly nabbed the vagabonds before they fled through a cornfield.
“They are still on the run, hiding in the woods by day and grazing by night,” said Miville-Dechêne, with a note of pride and perhaps a hint of fromage.
She neglected to mention the reported costs of the twilight vandalism, which locals say has cost at least $20,000.
But Miville-Dechêne did save some of her praise for the humans in the story, congratulating the municipal general manager, Marie-Andrée Cadorette, for her “dogged determination,” and commending the would-be wranglers for stepping up when every government department and police force in Quebec said there was nothing they could do.
“There is a political lesson in there somewhere,” said the former journalist.
Miville-Dechêne ended on what could perhaps be interpreted as a butchered metaphor about non-partisanship: “Finally, I would like to confess my unbridled admiration for these cows that have found freedom and are still out there, frolicking about. While we overcomplicate things, these cows are learning to jump fences.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.
There are growing concerns from Iranian-Canadians who say they are being threatened, monitored and even followed at protests and outside their homes by affiliates of the Iranian regime who are here in Canada.
“They know the view out of my apartment. They said it was a school. That I have three cats. They knew the friends that have come to my house,” said Maryam Shafipour, an Iranian activist who now lives in Canada and who is speaking out against the regime despite the dangers.
Last year, members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard — a branch of the Iranian forces designated as a terrorist organization in the U.S. — took that information about her life back to her sister in Iran, Shafipour said, and used it to try to threaten her family and lure her back to the country.
“After that I just cut my relationship with all my friends because I’m really scared,’ said Shafipour. “I am just isolated now.”
Shafipour has reason to be afraid. She once spent two months in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison for “spreading propaganda against the system” — the same prison where Mahsa Amini was held. Amini’s arrest on Sept. 13, reportedly for not following Iran’s strict dress code, and death in detention has sparked months of major protests inside and outside Iran.
Last week, for the first time, CSIS confirmed that it is investigating “several threats to life emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
But Shafipour and other activists told CBC News they’ve had no help from Canadian police or government officials and don’t feel like the threat here is being taken seriously.
Concerns of digital spying
Shafipour’s not the only one who has been monitored in Canada.
In 2021, the FBI publicized details of a plot to kidnap Iranian-American activist Masih Alinejad from her home in New York — part of that report revealed plots to kidnap three unnamed people here in Canada.
The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran even hired private investigators in Brooklyn, N.Y., and in Canada to spy on Alinejad and four other dissidents, according to court documents.
Shafipour is worried the Iranian government hacked into her phone. Curious if there was indeed spyware on her phone, Shafipour sat with experts at Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity lab in Toronto that helps human rights activists under threat of digital espionage.
WATCH | ‘Maybe they are already here,’ says activist Maryam Shafipour:
Shafipour, who has been in Canada since 2016, has limited her contact with her sister and friends since learning about the surveillance.
She said she’s grateful someone took her seriously, adding Canadian authorities hadn’t looked into her case at all.
“We know for a fact that they [Islamic Republic] have extensive technologies that enable them to drill right down into people’s personal mobile phones, know where they are, with whom they’re communicating with,” said Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab.
“It’s common actually for people in your situation to have agents or people who are sympathetic to the government within Canada follow them around, maybe try to intimidate them,” he said.
It’s not just high-profile activists like Shafipour and Alinejad who feel in danger; others with no public profile believe they are no longer safe to publicly criticize the regime. Two people spoke to CBC News on the promise of anonymity due to fears for their safety and the safety of their families back in Iran.
They say they have received threatening calls and a text message to cell phone numbers that were supposed to be private.
The messages warned them to stop posting on social media and speaking out about Iran.
“I have so many family members living in Iran and I love them. I don’t want anything to happen to them,” said the woman who received a text in Farsi. The text was identical to another one sent to activists and journalists in Iran several years ago.
It warned her that speaking with “the enemy” abroad through “email … or other communications” was criminal and would lead to prosecution, also stating “It’s crucial for you to disconnect and this SMS is the last security warning.”
The other person, a young man, received a series of phone calls from blocked and local Canadian numbers questioning why he had posted negatively about Iran on social media — using accounts that were private.
“He repeated himself multiple times and I was terrified and I dropped the call,” said the man.
WATCH | They received threats, but police told them they couldn’t help:
Two Iranian-Canadians, who are remaining anonymous, say they went to police with concerns after receiving threatening calls and a text message, and were told by police there was nothing they can do.
Even more frightening, the caller addressed him by name. He doesn’t know how either he or his number were found.
Both feel they have been watched at protests with people in the crowd using their phones to take pictures of their faces. They believe that information is then sent back to the Iranian government.
“I feel terrified,” the man added.
These two young Iranian Canadians went to police and say they could not get past reception. They claim they were told no one could help them.
“I feel like the police, whether in Toronto or anywhere in Canada … wait until someone dies and then they will do something,” said one of them.
CSIS investigating ‘several threats’
CBC spoke with others who had similar stories and who say they have been to police, the RCMP and even CSIS without hearing back.
When asked by CBC News about the rise in Iranian dissidents receiving threats in Canada, the RCMP said in a statement they believe the problem “is growing” but said they can’t quantify it as they believe it is still underreported.
CSIS has acknowledged they are monitoring the situation, announcing for the first time last Friday they are investigating “several threats to life emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
“Canadians are not getting how serious this issue is,” Ardeshir Zarezadeh said.
Zarezadeh, an Iranian-Canadian who once spent two years in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison, believes the regime’s presence in Canada is growing, causing distress and confusion in his community.
“They [the Iranian regime and its affiliates] have businesses here. Non-governmental organizations. Houses. They are everywhere. And everyone knows it,” he said.
The RCMP never responded to my messages. What’s wrong with the government? Why are they not taking action?– Ardeshir Zarezadeh
Zarezadeh said a couple years ago, a member of the regime showed-up at his Toronto legal offices after calling to make an appointment from a payphone. He was denied an appointment but showed up suddenly anyway, catching Zarezadeh in the lobby.
“He asked to speak to me for my legal services, I told him I was in a rush, but I felt nervous immediately, ” Zarezadeh said.
Zarezadeh said he quickly ended the conversation saying he had to go and that the man left.
“I met so many intelligence officers when I was in Iran. I was arrested 12 times. So many of them interrogated me, so I know how they behave, talk, react.”
He immediately contacted the FBI who confirmed to him that the visitor was a known threat and a top regime operative, and warned him to be very careful.
He says after calls to the RCMP over the matter, they have not followed-up with him.
“The RCMP never responded to my messages. What’s wrong with the government? Why are they not taking action?
Zarezadeh has taken matters into his own hands. He’s compiling a list of names and addresses of known regime affiliates here in Canada and is prepared to make that list public as well as sharing it with the government and other intelligence agencies.
“I don’t feel safe in Canada. I am constantly watching my back, I bring people with me everywhere I go because who knows any day now I could get a knife in my back,” Zarezadeh said.
CBC News asked the federal minister of public safety about the lack of police response. We are still waiting for an answer.
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the last witness to testify at the public inquiry into his Liberal government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act to quell protests in Ottawa and at several Canada-U.S. border crossings last winter.
There had already been a consensus around the table, Trudeau said Friday, that the government should bring in the emergency powers, but then at 3:41 p.m. on Feb. 14, he received another memo that he testified played a strong role in his making that final decision.
That was when he received the “decision note” from Janice Charette, clerk of the Privy Council, who is Canada’s top civil servant, that formally recommended the invocation of the Emergencies Act for the first time since it had replaced the War Measures Act in 1988.
In his own words, here is what Trudeau told the Public Order Emergency Commission about his thinking in that moment.
“It was a big thing, not a small thing, to have the head of the public service formally recommend the invocation of the Emergencies Act and the declaration of a public order emergency. It’s not something that had ever been done in Canada before. It was certainly not something that we undertook to do lightly. And as a prime minister, I get to sign off and agree with these notes, or in some cases, disagree with them. And that was a moment that I took with the weight of the decision I was about to take.
“And I reflected briefly on first of all, the reassurance that it gave me that the entire system, all the inputs in the system had come up to the clerk of the Privy Council — the top public servant in Canada; impartial, professional public service — making the recommendation to move forward on this was essential to me.
“But I also reflected on OK, what if I don’t sign it? What if I say, ‘OK, we now have advice from the professional public service to invoke a public order or emergency.’ And I decide, you know what? Let’s give it a few days where the professional public service had made a determination that the thresholds were met, that the use of it was appropriate and responsible and the measures were the right ones that we were going to put in it. And I said, ‘No, you know what? Let’s wait and see another few days, another week, to see if we really need to do it.’
“First of all, what if the worst had happened in those following days? What if someone had gotten hurt? What if a police officer had been put in a hospital? What if, when I had an opportunity to do something, I had waited and we had the unthinkable happen over the coming days, even though there was all this warning that it was possibly coming? I would have worn that in a way that we would certainly be talking about in a forum such as this.
“But more than that, the responsibility of a prime minister is to make the tough calls and keep people safe. And this was a moment where the collective advice of cabinet, of the public service and my own inclination was that this was a moment to do something that we needed to do to keep Canadians safe. And knowing full well that this was an inevitable consequence of me signing ‘I agree’ on this note, I was very comfortable that we were at a moment where this was the right thing to do. And we did it.
“And it is a certain amount of comfort that first of all, the system is working as it should, that people who are defending civil liberties are able to say, ‘You really should be careful about doing this. Maybe you shouldn’t have done it,’ that we have a system pushing back on this, because it’s a big thing, not a small thing, to do this.
“But that also we were able to solve the situation with it, that there was no loss of life. There was no serious violence, that we were able to get neighbourhoods back under control, border services opened and there haven’t been a recurrence of these kinds of illegal occupations since that.
“I’m not going to pretend that it’s the only thing that could have done it. But it did do it. And that colours the conversations we’re having now with the fact that these could be very different conversations.
“And I am absolutely, absolutely serene and confident that I made the right choice in agreeing with the invocation.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2022.
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