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Uyghur group withdraws from foreign interference inquiry, says victims won't be protected

Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue listens to counsel deliver remarks on the second day of the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024 in Ottawa.  (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue listens to counsel deliver remarks on the second day of the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A human rights group advocating for China's Uyghur minority in Canada is pulling out of the foreign election interference inquiry, claiming the process could put victims at risk.

In a statement released Wednesday evening, the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project (URAP) said the continued participation of three men accused of being linked to the Chinese government "pose[s] a significant security risk" to diaspora communities.

The issue, which has been playing out for the past few weeks, centres on Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue's decision to grant standing to former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Michael Chan and Independent MP Han Dong. Standing means they can question witnesses and have advance access to evidence.

The human rights group also has expressed concerns about the fact that Independent Senator Yuen Pau Woo, who has been accused of taking pro-Beijing stances on various issues, has intervener status.

"URAP refuses to participate in a process meant to address and reconcile foreign interference that uplifts individuals complicit in and benefiting from foreign interference themselves," said the statement.

"The commission's protection of questionable national actors and its simultaneous failure to safeguard victims of transnational repression reveals systemic dysfunctionality in its process."

Dong, Chan and Woo have denied working for China.

URAP's executive director, Mehmet Tohti, said he already faces intimidation and harassment from Chinese officials over his advocacy.

"It is disheartening that the commissioner has failed to protect individuals like Mehmet and other diaspora community members personally invested in the public inquiry's subject matter," URAP said in its media statement.

Tohti's agency is part of a larger coalition of human rights groups that has full standing at the inquiry.

Spies keep too many things secret, says ex-CSIS chief

Hogue is investigating whether Beijing, Russia, India and other nations interfered in the past two elections, and how information about foreign interference flowed within the federal government. The inquiry was announced in the aftermath of media reports accusing Beijing of meddling in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

This week, the commission is focused on the question of how to deal with the complicated secrecy laws protecting sensitive information.

Earlier in the day, the commission heard from Richard Fadden, the former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

He urged the commission to push back against what he called an often overprotective national security culture.

"Things are classified more than they need to be," Fadden said. "There is room to push because of this overprotection, this culture."

Former CSIS Director Richard Fadden speaks as he participates in a panel at the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, in Ottawa, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.
Former CSIS Director Richard Fadden speaks as he participates in a panel at the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, in Ottawa, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

Former CSIS director Richard Fadden participates in a panel at the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

On Monday, a lawyer for the commission warned that most of the evidence received by the commission is classified  — mostly at the top-secret level.

Fadden, who also served as the national security adviser to prime ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, said much of the information the commission will be interested in deserves protection. 

But, he added, there's no advocate for openness within the system.

"The culture, the workload and the tradition in agencies, I think, is to tend towards overprotection," he said.

"Not always the case, but it's frequently the case."

Fadden was joined at the hearing by Alan Jones, who was an assistant director at CSIS and also worked for the RCMP. Jones told the inquiry that while there are good reasons to protect security information — such as protecting sources' lives — there are ways to disclose more while protecting sensitive sources.

Canada's allies 'much more open' — Fadden

The secrecy-by-default culture in Canada's security services isn't shared by Canada's allies, Fadden said. 

"Our close allies are much, much more open than we are. They really protect their core secrets. But the Brits, the Yanks, the Australians tend to be much more open than Canada is," he said.

"You can often point to something that they've released that's very close to what you want to release and ask the officials, 'Why can't we do this?'"

Fadden suggested Hogue consult the Department of Justice and the Clerk of the Privy Council if she runs into trouble getting access to government-held information.

The current discussions of national security and confidentiality are meant to set the stage for the next round of public hearings in March