It looks like the Canadian public is about to be put through a massive experiment designed to shape Canadian policy towards China. The goal? To harness the broad powers of state and society in an existential struggle against the Chinese state.
Its role in the return of Canadian citizens of Arabic origin or Muslim faith to their country of persecution is well known and has been investigated by federally appointed commissioners over many years. The investigations concluded the service had exaggerated the threat represented by these citizens and forced the government to pay millions of dollars in compensation.
There is no indication that, despite this dismal record, any reforms or safeguards were put in place to prevent such abuse from occurring again. The prejudicial culture that appears to exist in the CSIS is not limited to people or groups outside it. In 2017, it was sued by employees, who later settled, and accused of racism, homophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination.
In his report, Johnston did not blame the Trudeau government so much as point to a broken communication system between the executive and its intelligence establishment.
Following intense discussions during the summer with opposition parties, the government finally built a consensus around the nomination of a court judge to head a public inquiry that will investigate the matter and provide a final report by the end of 2024, before the next federal elections due in 2025. The commissioner, Quebec Court of Appeal judge Marie-Josee Hogue, is scheduled to take her position on September 18.
If the debate coverage so far is any indication, the outcome of the inquiry is largely a foregone conclusion. It is likely to highlight gaps in the communication of intelligence reports to members of the cabinet, and make recommendations to correct them. Gross Chinese state interference will be further “exposed”.
Most likely, no one will be personally blamed for the communication failures. Yet, there are indications that the bigger problem lies elsewhere.
In the public forums where the issue of Chinese interference have been discussed in the past year, a theme kept resurfacing that should have raised public suspicions: whether there was indeed active Chinese interference in Canada’s political process. Media reports tended to take for granted that there was – without providing specific information sources or detailing what was actually exposed.
Testimonies provided by public officials to parliament referred to the fact that the evidence did not provide actionable intelligence, code word for there being nothing criminal. Special rapporteur Johnston came to a similar conclusion in his report to parliament. This should not come as a surprise. The CSIS has a history of stretching the truth in the pursuit of its objectives.
We will see in the months ahead, as the public inquiry carries out its investigation, the extent to which it will attempt to get to the bottom of things. Commissioner Hogue will have the power to hear evidence in camera, thus keeping sensitive intelligence out of public view. But such inquiries can sometimes veer in unexpected directions, and more may be revealed than bargained for.
What is troublesome in the public discussion so far is that the fact of interference is taken for granted. No one appears to be disputing it, despite the Chinese government’s strenuous statements to the contrary.
Richard Desjardins retired in 2020 after a 29-year career as a Canadian public servant
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