Did Politicians Break the Law by Aiding Foreign Influence Efforts?

After years of toiling away little noticed, the awkwardly named National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians certainly caught the nation’s attention this week. The committee, which reviewed 4,000 classified documents totaling 32,000 pages and held closed briefings with officials, found that some federal politicians had been “‘semi-witting or witting’ participants in the efforts of foreign states to interfere in our politics.”

China was “the most prolific actor” involved in foreign interference, followed by India, the committee said, with some “limited” activity involving Pakistan.

According to the heavily redacted report from the committee, made up of members of Parliament and senators who were given high-level security clearances, the collusion with foreign diplomats and agents took many forms.

Politicians, who were not identified in the report, gathered support for candidates favored by their diplomatic contacts, the report said, and shared with those contacts information about other politicians, which was then used by foreign governments “to inappropriately pressure Parliamentarians to change their positions.” Someone offered “information learned in confidence from the government” to a foreign spy, according to the report, and others lobbied Canadian politicians on behalf of their foreign contacts.

In exchange, the report said, some of these politicians accepted, “knowingly or through willful blindness,” money or other “benefits” from diplomats or people acting on behalf of the foreign governments.

The reaction has been twofold. Opposition parties are demanding that the politicians in the documents be named publicly. And there have been widespread calls for action — in Parliament, on social media and in the news media — against those politicians, including criminal charges, with some commentators suggesting that they are guilty of treason.

The report said only that some of the behavior “may be illegal,” and it dismissed the possibility of criminal charges because of the difficulties that surround producing classified intelligence in court. (Legislation was introduced last month that the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said would make it easier to use secret intelligence at trials.) The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has said that it is aware of the report, but it has declined to comment on whether it is investigating the allegations.

I contacted two law professors who specialize in national security laws to see whether any laws might have been broken.

“Talking about treason is almost absurd,” Prof. Michael Nesbitt at the University of Calgary told me. He added that it is not a crime to speak with diplomats or agents of other countries, including governments hostile to Canada, and that the law surrounding treason “is so poorly drafted it’s totally unenforceable.”

Breach of trust is “brutal to prosecute when it comes to politicians,” Professor Nesbitt said. One difficulty would be proving that the politicians’ actions occurred outside their normal duties to explore foreign relations, for example.

Prof. Kent Roach at the University of Toronto told me the only law that might have been broken was the Security of Information Act, but only if officially classified information had been passed along. The report does not suggest that happened.

Professor Roach added that there were many reasons to conceal the names of the politicians. Intelligence assessments are not evidence and can be wrong — as in the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian engineer who was imprisoned and tortured for 10 months in Syria after being deported there on flawed intelligence from the Mounties.

“The history of intelligence-led terrorist listing shows that intelligence is often guided by a precautionary principle and can be overinclusive in terms of individual culpability,” Professor Roach wrote in an email.

The report released this week is the second on foreign election meddling that the committee has produced since 2019. And like the report by another watchdog agency I wrote about in last week’s Canada Letter, this one found that at least one major intelligence report on Chinese interference had not made its way to the prime minister. But the new report also takes Mr. Trudeau’s government to task for not effectively dealing with the problem over many years: Not fixing holes in Canada’s system, it said, helped “perpetuate a permissive environment for foreign actors to operate.”

Canada’s system generally presumes that politicians will be held to account by voters, not judges, Professor Nesbitt said. And, he added, because much of the foreign interference appeared to involve nomination meetings for local parliamentary candidates, which are not governed by election laws, all political parties in Canada had a responsibility in it.

But the current public inquiry into foreign political interference was told that it could not examine things like the parties’ candidate nomination processes.

One of the most serious risks associated with foreign interference is “the lack of oversight of political parties and rules regulating them — yet we don’t want to look at them,” he said. “You’ve got to ask why. If you want to do this kind of work, you’ve got to open up the hood.”

  • Ivan Penn, a Times reporter who covers the energy industry, and Ruth Fremson, a Times photographer, traveled to Hydro-Québec’s Robert-Bourassa Generating Station to document a surprising reversal: Low levels of snow and rainfall in Canada meant that beginning in February, the United States sent more electricity to Canada than it imported from here.

  • Prime Minister Trudeau discussed A.I., and his government’s efforts to stem an A.I. brain drain from Canada, with Kevin Roose, a Times tech columnist, and Casey Newton on the “Hard Fork” podcast.

  • Frank Stronach, the 91-year-old billionaire founder of the auto parts maker Magna International, is now facing charges related to sexual assaults the police say occurred from the 1980s until last year.

  • Robert Pickton, the serial killer whose vicious crimes exposed the police’s indifference to the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls, has died after a prison assault.

  • Craig Steven Wright, an Australian computer scientist bankrolled by a Canadian businessman, Calvin Ayre, had long claimed to be the mysterious inventor of Bitcoin. My colleague David Yaffe-Bellany lays out how those claims were ultimately dismantled.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada over two decades. Follow him on Bluesky: @ianausten.bsky.social

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