Canadian Security Magazine

National security adviser defends cabinet confidence in foreign meddling probe

By The Canadian Press   

News Securing the Nation foreign interference national security adviser Ottawa

Minister of Public Safety, Democratic Institutions and Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc speaks with colleagues as he waits to appear at the Procedure and House Affairs committee, Thursday, June 20, 2024 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

By Mia Rabson

No amount of cajoling, wild hand gestures or outright hostility from opposition MPs could make Democratic Institutions Minister Dominic LeBlanc budge from his insistence Thursday that the government is not hiding any relevant documents or information from the foreign interference inquiry.

And National Security Adviser Nathalie Drouin said to break the long-standing convention of cabinet confidence would be to play into the hands of the foreign entities trying disrupt Canada’s democracy.

LeBlanc and Drouin were both appearing at the House of Commons procedural committee Thursday morning at the insistence of opposition parties who want to know why there are still documents in the government’s possession that inquiry commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue has not seen.

“Why is your government so opaque?” Conservative MP Luc Berthold asked in French.

LeBlanc rejected the suggestion.

“The prime minister and the government are hiding nothing from the commissioner,” he insisted repeatedly over the course of an hour of testimony at the House of Commons procedure committee Thursday morning.

LeBlanc said the commission has been given four substantial cabinet memos that are the most relevant to discussions cabinet had about evidence that foreign states — including China, India, Russia and Iran — were attempting to interfere in Canada’s electoral process. The documents are the ones all parties agreed to release in the negotiations for the commission’s mandate last summer, he said.

As well, he said 46,000 documents, “some of the most sensitive and top secret documents in the government of Canada’s possession,” had been turned over.

But in her interim report released in early May, Hogue said some of the documents the government provided contained “redactions for cabinet confidence, solicitor-client privilege or protection of personal information.”

The commission and the government are still negotiating “the application of these privileges,” the report said.

The opposition demanded the meeting to ask questions about the redactions and what else the government hasn’t handed over.

“The commission is now asking for the unredacted cabinet documents in order to assist them with their work,” NDP MP Jenny Kwan said.

“So if the commissioner is asking for this, if they did not feel that it was important to fulfil their mandate, they wouldn’t ask for it.”

Kwan said a big part of Hogue’s mission is to determine what the government knew about foreign interference, when it knew about it and what it did to respond. She questioned why it wasn’t up to the commissioner to decide what was relevant.

LeBlanc said the commission does have access to all of the relevant cabinet documents but acknowledged there is an ongoing conversation with the commission about its request for additional documents.

He said that request is not just for cabinet documents, but also for documents in the possession of other agencies such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

He also said no government would “evacuate” cabinet confidence provisions entirely, and said cabinet documents have been provided to commissions of inquiry only five times in 44 different public inquiries, four of them approved by Liberal governments.

Drouin said the tradition of cabinet confidence is at the heart of Canada’s parliamentary system, allowing ministers to provide opinions and advice behind closed doors and then emerge united behind the decisions they made.

“The first goal of foreign actors is to attack our democracy. This is really the first goal,” she said. “So we need to protect our tools that are there in order to protect our democracy. This is why I think that cabinet confidence, this is not a partisan conversation. This is something that we should be proud of, and that is absolutely essential for any government to govern.”

As for publicly releasing secret intelligence collected by Canada or its allies, that is also shaky ground.

“When we collect intelligence, doing espionage, we are doing that covertly,” she said. “We are not giving the targets the opportunity to be heard, so throwing information in the public domain will not be responsible. On top of that, it can burn the essential sources that we have. So this is why we really need to be very careful.”

Hogue’s interim report concluded that foreign interference did take place in the 2019 and 2021 elections, including during the nomination processes before the vote. Hogue said while ultimately the meddling did not affect the overall results, it may have impacted nomination contest results, or the winner in a “handful” of ridings.

Since then, a report from the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians issued a bombshell revelation that some MPs “wittingly” co-operated with foreign actors after being elected. The names of those people have not been made public, though both Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who have seen the unredacted version of that report, have indicated no concerns about any current members of Parliament.

Hogue is now looking at those allegations as well.

Her final report is due at the end of December.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2024.

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