Canada will expel Chinese diplomats if there is evidence of wrongdoing: Joly


2023-03-09 21:30:00


The Liberal government has tabled legislation to alter terrorism provisions of the Criminal Code that have blocked Canadian humanitarian aid from reaching Afghanistan.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino is proposing amendments to the Criminal Code that provide a carveout for Canadian aid workers to carry out duties in areas controlled by terrorists without being prosecuted.

The new legislation introduced on Thursday would allow aid workers to apply for an exemption that lasts five years, in order to help people in crisis “in a geographic area that is controlled by a terrorist group.”

Humanitarian groups say that more than a year ago, Global Affairs Canada warned them that purchasing goods or hiring locals in Afghanistan would involve paying taxes to the Taliban, which would be categorized under the law as contributing to a terror group.

The issue paralyzed attempts by aid workers to reach the country, since even highway-usage fees and airport landing taxes would benefit the Taliban.

After the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover of Kabul, Canada’s allies moved much more swiftly to alter national laws and issue exemptions to ensure aid workers could keep working in Afghanistan.

Ottawa has helped fund United Nations efforts on the ground, but the Canadian aid sector says it’s been excruciating to not be part of the response to widespread malnutrition, an irregularly cold winter and daughters being sold to help families afford basic goods.

Groups such as World Vision Canada say they’ve held back on launching donation appeals because of the rules, despite Afghanistan being one of the countries for which Canadians are most likely to pledge money.

The exemptions outlined in the newly tabled Bill C-41 would allow for “providing or supporting the provision of humanitarian assistance” as well as health care, education, “programs to assist individual in earning a livelihood,” promoting human rights and helping to resettle people.

Federal officials said during a technical briefing that an organization could apply for one permit to cover all of its activities, instead of requiring separate ones for individual aid workers. They said there is no timeline for how soon exemption applications could be processed.

Cabinet would grant the exemptions even if there is a risk that a terror group will try to seize goods or otherwise benefit, officials said, if the benefits of the activity outweigh that risk. The decision would be based on a security assessment or measures undertaken to mitigate the risk.

These proposed exemptions would be eligible to both Canadians abroad and people who reside in Canada. The minister could withdraw the exemptions at will, and the drafted legislation bars anyone who is or is likely to be involved in a terror group from being granted an exemption.

Under the legislation, annual reports by the minister covering the use of such exemptions over the previous calendar year would be due every July. The minister’s decisions would also be subject to judicial review.

Mendicino is expected to hold a news conference at the Ottawa headquarters of the Canadian Red Cross later on Thursday.

The NDP is calling for Ottawa to prioritize the legislation.

“While this legislation comes 18 months too late, New Democrats will take a close look at this bill and work to ensure that Canadian organizations will have the tools they need to finally restart their life-saving work in Afghanistan,” foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson said in a statement.

“This legislation, and the resulting deliberations, must be prioritized to ensure more lives are not lost (as) the result of the Canadian government’s inaction.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly confirmed Thursday that Canada denied a diplomatic visa request from a Chinese political operative last fall due to concerns about foreign interference — and said she wouldn’t hesitate to expel diplomats for the same reason.

“I’ve instructed my department to never shy away from denying a visa if it’s a political operative linked to the Communist Party of China,” Joly said to the procedure and House affairs committee, which is studying alleged foreign election interference in the 2019 and 2021 general elections.

“It is the right thing to do.”

Facing a barrage of questions from opposition members of Parliament, Joly laid out the tools the Canadian government is using to combat foreign interference in response to questions about recent allegations of Chinese meddling.

She told MPs that it’s easier to keep people from engaging in foreign interference by blocking them from coming into the country, rather than monitoring them when they are already in Canada.

But she said diplomats operating in Canada can also be expelled if there is evidence under the Vienna Convention — a United Nations code governing international diplomacy — that they engaged in interference.

“If we have any form of clear evidence of wrongdoing, we’ll send diplomats packing very, very, very quickly,” she said.

Amid criticism from Conservative MPs over the fact that Canada has not expelled any such actors, Joly said her political opponents are looking for an “easy fix” that would prompt the retaliatory expulsion of Canadian diplomats from China and could endanger Canadians who live overseas.

Joly said Canadian diplomats were crucial to bringing home Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in September 2021 after they were detained by China for more than 1,000 days.

“More than ever, we need capacity. We need eyes and ears on the ground. We need to be able to address national interests we have in our bilateral relationship. And I’m extremely concerned about the protections of Canadians abroad,” the minister said.

“We need to engage to protect these people. It’s something that keeps me up at night, and that’s why we have capacity in Beijing.”

Joly echoed comments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is facing intense scrutiny over the issue of foreign interference and has responded by accusing Conservatives of politicizing national security.

“When you fall into too much partisanship, we’re falling into China’s trap,” she said.

Tensions between federal parties rose throughout the week, with Liberals devoting several meetings to an extended filibuster as the government faced rising pressure.

On Thursday, during an intense bout of questioning, Conservative MP Michael Cooper quipped to Joly: “You’ve talked tough with your Beijing counterpart, so you say. You even stared into his eyes. I’m sure he was very intimidated.”

Several MPs on the committee accused him of being inappropriate, with Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell calling the comments “demeaning.” After the meeting, NDP MP Rachel Blaney told reporters it was outright “sexist.” Cooper did not apologize during the committee hearing.

During a separate meeting Thursday of the Senate foreign affairs committee, former Conservative foreign minister John Baird said the Liberals face a greater challenge with China than Stephen Harper’s government did.

“China has changed demonstrably in recent years,” Baird said. “Obviously, the policies that they have been pursuing have been demonstrably more of a challenge.”

He noted that the Harper government “got off to a bit of a rough relationship with China” but was able to find some grounds for working with Beijing.

Baird said the Trudeau government had made things more challenging for itself before the detention of Spavor and Kovrig.

He cited an abrupt change in Canada’s approach to trade negotiations, which saw the Liberal government more aggressively asserting progressive values; the 2018 decision to bar a Chinese takeover of construction firm Aecon on national security grounds; and language in the new Canada-United States-Mexico free trade deal that effectively freezes out the option for a trade deal with China.

“This is not new, though, for Canada. Some days people are better friends and allies, and that can change very quickly, as it has over the decades,” Baird said.

The federal effort to address foreign interference has ramped up after Trudeau announced new measures earlier this week.

In a statement, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians said it will examine the state of foreign interference in Canada’s democratic processes since 2018.

That will continue the work done in its previous review of the government’s response to foreign interference, which covered the period from 2015 to 2018.

It will also consider the independent report by former public servant Morris Rosenberg on the federal protocol for monitoring foreign interference attempts during the last general election.

Chaired by Liberal MP David McGuinty, the committee plans to consult other review bodies to avoid duplication as it develops its terms of reference for the latest review.

“Foreign interference and influence have been identified as significant threats to the rights and freedoms of Canadians and Canadian society,” McGuinty said in the statement.

“The committee recognizes the importance of preserving the integrity of our institutions, and looks forward to building upon its previous review of the government’s response to foreign interference.”

Earlier this week, Trudeau urged the national security committee and another spy watchdog, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, to look into foreign interference in light of recent concerns about possible Chinese meddling in the last two federal elections.

The government also plans to appoint an “eminent Canadian” with a broad mandate on the issue. The independent rapporteur will be responsible for informing the work of NSIRA and NSICOP and any other existing processes and investigations that may be carried out by bodies like Canada’s Commissioner of Elections.

The rapporteur will make public recommendations, which could include a formal inquiry or some other independent review process, and the government said it will abide by the guidance.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Wednesday at a briefing that China always opposes interference in other countries’ internal affairs.

“We have no interest in and will not interfere in Canada’s internal affairs,” she said. “It’s absurd that some in Canada are making an issue about China based on disinformation and lies.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2023.

— With files from Dylan Robertson.

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