The Hogue Commission: Inquiry or Inquisition?

 [[{“value”:”This is part three of a three part series on Bill C-70.
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Bill C-70 and the emerging national security state will put extraordinary pressure on social movements and racialized communities as it seeks to generate perpetual enemies and prepares for war. 

Unless social movements pivot rapidly to confront this new danger, disaster awaits. Confronting the emerging challenge from the far right requires a united left capable of refuting the propaganda of CSIS and its allies.

Bill C-70 also poses major challenges for the Hogue Commission. Officially termed the “Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions,” (aka, the Foreign Interference Inquiry) it is headed by Justice Marie-Josée Hogue and began hearings last fall.

Under its terms of reference, the Hogue Commission was tasked with examining all forms of election interference as well as interference in communities and institutions. Its recommendations, due by the end of this year, were expected to guide the introduction of new legislation to deal with ‘foreign interference.’ 

However, the passage of Bill C-70 has short circuited the process, introducing drastic reforms that civil liberty groups say will likely have a “chilling effect — on freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and on privacy, and it could well be used to profile people on political, racial, religious, or nationality grounds. The law will allow the undermining of academic freedom, freedom of the press, the right to protest and engage in dissent, and efforts at international cooperation and solidarity.”

In addition, parliament has now tossed another hot potato into the Commission’s pot – to assess the veracity of a special report by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) that repeats Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) allegations that some parliamentarians were “’semi-witting or witting’ participants in the efforts of foreign states to interfere in our politics.” The allegations caused a media firestorm until a Bloc Québécois motion to have the Commission examine the allegations passed in parliament.

Finally, the Commission will have to cope with some dissidents, such as the Concern Group (see part 2), trying to turn the Commission into an inquisition, where whoever they name is to be investigated as disloyal or potential spies. If that should happened, the Hogue Commission would eerily resemble the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) Committee that trampled on civil rights in a search for subversives from 1938 into the 1960s.

CSIS has been beating the foreign interference drum for five years, with an almost exclusive focus on the People’s Republic of China. However, matters came to a head last February when CSIS leaked top-secret files to the Globe and Mail. Not bothering to fact-check the contents, or to probe the intention of such leaks, the Globe and Mail simply added them to its campaign on ‘foreign interference.’. This term is so ambiguous and undefined that its proponents constantly generate an ever-expanding, never-ending search, most often behind closed doors, for the spies within – in actuality, a witch hunt that aims to tarnish anyone who dissents with CSIS or with current Canadian foreign policy.

To assist in understanding the often-opaque labyrinth of ‘national security’ circles in Ottawa manufacturing the current panic, we provide a select chronology of events leading to the current crisis. 

Select chronology

February/2023: CSIS began leaking top-secret documents to Globe and Mail reporters. Neither willing nor culturally competent to fact-check the leaked information, the Globe and Mail reporters amplified the allegations, sparking a political firestorm. 

March/2023: Engaging in damage control, the Liberals responded with a host of measures including appointing former governor-general David Johnston as an Independent Special Rapporteur on election interference and a request to NSCICOP to investigate interference in elections.

May 23/2023: David Johnston submitted his first report, concluding that there was some foreign interference but that it did not affect elections results. He said a public inquiry “would not serve a useful purpose to enhance trust.”

May 31/2023: Dissatisfied, NDP MP Jenny Kwan brokered an opposition party agreement and personally introduced a motion calling for Johnston to resign that passed 174-150. Johnston subsequently stepped down. 

September 7/2023: The Liberal government announced the creation of the Hogue Commission with specific terms of reference. Hogue provided official standing to a limited number of groups and people and began hearings or took submissions that fall.

September 23/2023: Sudden revelations regarding Indian government involvement in the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar threw a spanner in CSIS hopes to focus on China, so the term “country agnostic” has been increasingly invoked. Yet certain countries, such as the U.S. or Israel seem immune.

January/2024: The Liberal government announced severe research restrictions that apply to all federally-fund research grant applications. The Sensitive Technology Research and Affiliations of Concern defines Sensitive Technology Research Areas and Named Research Organizations that bans work in these areas with nearly 100 universities in China as well as a number in Russia and Iran.

May 3/2024: The Hogue Commission released its Initial Report, concluding that there was some foreign meddling that constituted a “stain” on elections but that it had not altered the election outcome, a similar conclusion to that of David Johnston.

May 6/2024: Liberal government introduced Bill C-70, the Countering Foreign Interference Act, rushing major changes to national security laws through the House of Commons and the Senate on the basis of a unanimous consent motion.

June 3/2024: NSICOP tabled in parliament a redacted version of a report repeating CSIS allegations that some parliamentarians are helping foreign states interfere in Canada, sparking a political furor. The report is referred to the Hogue Commission.

June 20/2024: Bill C-70 becomes law as parliament closes, giving CSIS the “authority the agency has been seeking for a decade,” as one Carleton professor put it. In the process they pre-empted the work of the Hogue Commission.

Rough waters ahead

Social movements and even the Hogue Commission can expect the mainstream media, particularly the Globe and Mail to be hostile towards any departure from CSIS’s central narrative. This newspaper’s reaction to the parliamentary motion to have the Hogue Commission assess the NSICOP special report captures its role as CSIS adjunct.

Its 19 June issue included: 1) a front-page story repeating without any semblance of fact-checking, a dissident group’s accusations that senators Victor Oh and Yuen Pau Woo were closely tied with “the Chinese government and pro-CCP community leaders in Canada,” and should be investigated by the Foreign Interference Commission; 2) a sidebar article on NDP MP Jenny Kwan intervening in parliament on a point of privilege to demand the names from the NSICOP report be made public; 3) a commentary by Andrew Coyne raging about “unnamed traitors in parliament.”

Let there be no mistake – the scene has been set for a witch hunt that is hauntingly similar to the McCarthy era that saw thousands of innocent people, in Canada and the United States, tarred with the brush of disloyalty. As B.C. Civil Liberties Association spokesperson Meghan McDermott put it recently “communities across Canada that already face discrimination will be further silenced and criminalized by the new foreign interference laws.”

Social movements, civil rights organizations, and surveillance experts may well consider joining forces to build the capacity necessary to counter the propaganda emanating from CSIS and its friends. 

The Hogue Commission will reconvene in the fall and will be an important venue for discussions regarding CSIS and public safety. The Commission should avoid becoming an inquisition as some groups seek, and instead pivot to hear diverse views and examine foreign interference by any country, including the U.S. and Israel, without fear or favour.

For this to happen, Justice Hogue must ensure that the Commission is a safe space not only for dissidents, but also for those in racialized communities intimidated by CSIS. Where necessary, such groups should be provided intervenor status and given the resources necessary so that the Commission receives a wide variety of views, essential if this is to be an inquiry that merits being called “public”.

Furthermore, the Commission must review NSICOP’s Special Report with a critical eye. Of the over 400 footnotes of references, nearly all are based on CSIS, RCMP, and other government communications with a handful of citations from dissident groups or conservative Australian think tanks. In other words, the report is little more than an echo chamber for CSIS and its Five Eyes allies.

Can Justice Hogue render an objective assessment of this and other matters without casting a critical gaze over the materials it is reviewing? We ask students from an early age to engage in critical thinking, should we expect anything less from the Commission? Otherwise, who is watching the watchers?

In the wake of parliament’s passing of Bill C-70, the Countering Foreign Interference Act, Elizabeth May expressed in parliament her ambivalence regarding the rush to legislate and sounded a note of caution:

“Madam Speaker, whenever we have a CSIS report that makes earth-shattering accusations, and parliamentarians assume CSIS is right, I always remember that CSIS is sometimes wrong. The accusations and information provided to members of cabinet in one era in this country told them that Maher Arar was a bad actor and that it was okay to allow extraordinary rendition, where he would be tortured in another country. CSIS is not always right, and we must ensure that we protect Canadians and those who are on our shores from the actions that occurred in such a dreadful episode as that. I am not sure that we have not left ourselves open to that happening again.”

Hopefully, civil society and Justice Hogue will heed the warning.

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