MP Michael Chong says Canada needs to 'catch up' to allies on national security threats

Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills Michael Chong prepares to appear as a witness at the standing committee on procedure and House affairs (PROC) on foreign election interference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills Michael Chong prepares to appear as a witness at the standing committee on procedure and House affairs (PROC) on foreign election interference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Conservative MP Michael Chong told a committee of fellow parliamentarians Tuesday that Canada needs to "catch up" to its allies on addressing foreign interference threats against politicians.

The Globe and Mail, citing a top secret document from 2021, reported earlier this month that the Chinese government was targeting a Canadian MP. An unnamed security source reportedly told the Globe that Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei was allegedly working on efforts to target Chong's family in China.

Appearing before the House procedure and affairs committee Tuesday evening, Chong said the attempted interference "would likely not have happened" if Canada had policies in place similar to those in the U.S. and the U.K.

"Canada needs to catch up and emulate the best practices of peer jurisdictions to ensure that critical national security and intelligence issues do not become bottlenecked within the bureaucracy and the executive," Chong said.

WATCH | Michael Chong says he suspected he was being targeted by Beijing: 

The government briefed Chong following the report — but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet have maintained that the report in question was never shared at the ministerial level in 2021. They've said they were not aware of the assessment until it was reported on by the Globe and Mail.

Chong has said in the House of Commons that Jody Thomas, the prime minister's national security adviser told him the 2021 CSIS report was sent to the Privy Council Office and to relevant government departments.

Chong wants tracking records for CSIS report    

During his opening remarks on Tuesday, Chong called on the committee to request the tracking records for the 2021 CSIS report to shed light on where the information went.

He later said the failure to notify him that his family might be targeted by foreign agents amounted to a "systemic breakdown in the machinery of government." He said the buck ultimately stops with the prime minister.

"The machinery of government is the responsibility of the prime minister alone," Chong said. "I think it's clear that the prime minister failed to architect the machinery of government in a way that would ensure that information flowed to MPs and to the House of Commons."

While Chong conceded that intelligence leaks to the media damage Canada's national security, he said intelligence agents wouldn't feel compelled to disclose secret information "in a system that is functioning properly."

Prior to the Globe's report, Chong said he only received one CSIS briefing regarding foreign interference in June 2021. He said that briefing was a general overview of foreign interference tactics — something he said all MPs should be receiving — but that potential threats to his family were never brought up.

"To know that the government of Canada knew about this and didn't do anything about it was deeply disappointing," he said.

Zhao expelled from Canada 

During questioning, Chong said he has personally received threats related to his stance on the Chinese government — including during the 2021 election campaign — though he didn't go into further details.

The government expelled Zhao from the country last week. The House of Commons voted unanimously to refer Zhao's alleged attempt to intimidate Chong to a House committee for further study as a "prima facie" case of contempt of Parliament.

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Chong made a number of recommendations to the committee, including that CSIS tell the Speaker of the House the identities of any foreign actor believed to be targeting MPs and their families.

He also called for the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) — a bipartisan assembly of MPs and senators who are sworn to secrecy in order to receive top-secret briefings — to be brought under the purview of Parliament.

Currently NSICOP isn't an official Parliamentary committee, and its members are appointed by the prime minister, though he is required to consult with opposition parties.

Since the Globe and Mail's story was published, CSIS has since reached out to other MPs to offer them briefings on foreign interference.

Government orders CSIS to directly brief MPs

Earlier Tuesday, the government issued a ministerial directive ordering CSIS to share more information directly with Parliamentarians under threat, and to create a direct line to the minister of public safety

Chong's committee appearance comes ahead of four federal byelections taking place next month.

The government announced Tuesday that the Security and Intelligence Threats (SITE) task force — an election threat task force consisting of Canada's top security agencies — will provide "enhanced monitoring" during the byelection period.

The task force is expected to provide regular assessments of foreign interference threats to a committee of deputy ministers, who will brief members of cabinet if needed.

SITE is also tasked with preparing two reports — one classified, one unclassified — about any attempts at interfering in the byelections.

Trudeau has tasked former governor general David Johnston with determining what the government's next steps should be to combat foreign interference. He is expected to tell the government by May 23 if he believes a public inquiry or some other form of investigation is needed.