A photo of CSIS headquarters in Ottawa, Canada's primary national intelligence agency, home to Canadian spies.
CSIS headquarters in Ottawa. Credit: jwqodjmvcfvmrhnokr / Wikimedia Commons Credit: jwqodjmvcfvmrhnokr / Wikimedia Commons

I’m mystified by the extensive deference and respect for the spies and security agencies responsible for the leaks in the China election interference inferno.

Doesn’t anyone know the record of “trained security professionals?” They missed the crack-up of the Soviet empire, 9/11 and Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

They got Cuba, Vietnam and Afghanistan wrong. In their British heyday they missed many double agents, then the traitors themselves regretted defecting. Up here they facilitated Maher Arar’s utterly unjustified abduction and torture. They didn’t do so well on the Ottawa convoy either.

It isn’t equivalent to surgery or plumbing, it’s more like consulting. Anyone can do it and no one knows what it really is. If Canadian spies were any good, they’d have anticipated Meng Wanzhou’s arrest and found a way to prevent her flying into Vancouver, so avoiding the Two Michaels. That would’ve been useful.

On the issue of a public inquiry, I’m agnostic. Why agnostic? Because everyone agrees everyone tries to influence everyone else’s elections. Canada did it in Venezuela and, appallingly, in Honduras. The U.S. does it everywhere, especially Ukraine. China does it here.

So the point isn’t to find out if they do it. They did. It’s to catch them if you can and punish them if it’s illegal. That would suggest it’s a policing issue, not an inquiry. Put the right cops onto it and stamp it out, wasting no time.

On the other hand, if Justin Trudeau is possibly a Chinese double agent intent on creating a “communist dictatorship” here, as Pierre Poilievre came close to saying in the House this week, that’d definitely be stuff for an inquiry.

There’s much murk here.

It’s not always clear when the reporters at the Globe and Mail or Global TV, who were shown but couldn’t keep the leaked items, paraphrase what they saw or suddenly quote from the documents. Or even the precise nature of the documents that the reporters did see.

The Globe and Mail reporters say China “uses Canadian organizations to advocate on their behalf,” though that would be normal for Ukraine or Israel. Then they write, “while obfuscating links” to China. But who’s being quoted here?

Elsewhere, CSIS seems to be paraphrasing Vancouver’s Chinese consul when it mentions “China’s efforts to influence” voters. But it’s unclear if CSIS then directly quotes the consul saying those efforts worked “while still adhering to the local political customs.” And even that wouldn’t necessarily imply law-breaking.

By contrast, claims about illicit campaign funding seem straightforward and should lead to charges.

What I found most distressing personally are reports, in the Star, about Chinese officials intimidating people here — such as Uyghurs, who work on human rights issues in China — via threats to their families back there. That seems to jibe with what’s known about China’s genocidal policies in Xianjing. I don’t know if it’s illegal. I hope so. Still, it has nothing to do with Canadian elections.

This leaves a question about why China’s actions provoke such an intense response compared to others’.

This week Liberal MP John McKay called China “an existential threat to Canada” out to “turn us all into vassal states.” McKay reflects an era when there was a stronger right wing in the Liberal party. He belongs to a global group called the “Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.” Needless to say (whataboutism alert) there is no Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on the U.S., though it has about 800 foreign military bases while China has one.

The Yellow Peril was a common term used in the 19th century by leaders like Germany’s Kaiser and reputable academics. It survives in Trump’s use of Kung Flu and other detritus. As someone said, the balloon didn’t help.

These currents then play into the quite separate, genuine distress Canadians felt over the Michaels, which wouldn’t even have happened but for the ineptitude of the government and our “professional” security geniuses.

These are devious waters we’re attempting to negotiate. No one’s good will should be taken for granted.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.