Senate committee: Proposed bill won’t protect Canadian elections from foreign meddling

The Trudeau government’s proposed changes to the federal Elections Act to block possible online foreign interference in Canadian elections has been given a passable rating by the Senate’s legal affairs committee, which thinks the law isn’t tough enough.

Still, rather than try to make a major overhaul or block Bill C-76, the committee approved only one amendment and sent the bill the full Senate with an admonition.

“The committee reiterates its conclusion from its 2017 report that the CEA (Canada Elections Act) does not sufficiently protect Canadian elections and underscores that more will need to be done by the Government of Canada and Parliament to address this concern above and beyond what is provided for in Bill C-76,” it said in a report issued Thursday.

In that report last year the committee suggested Parliament think of passing a law authorizing the seizure of assets of countries that try to interfere with our elections, as well as jail time.

The committee’s report came out on the same day the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security predicted that in 2019 — a federal election year — state-sponsored cyber threat actors will “very likely” target Canadians’ opinions through malicious online influence activity.

The committee agreed with Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, who testified that it would be almost impossible to prevent all forms of foreign interference during elections. She also said that Bill C-76 is just one of the tools Ottawa has to deal with possible foreign interference. Others include a special committee across a number of federal departments including the Elections commissioner, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE, the electronic spy agency), the RCMP, Public Saftey Canada, and the Privy Council office (the cabinet secretariat which runs the entire federal bureaucracy) to exchange intelligence on threats.

“All this being said, the committee emphasizes that more can and must be done to deter foreign entities from interfering in Canadian elections and to hold them accountable if they do.”

The issue of Canada’s readiness to face possible foreign meddling in elections drew a number of sharp comments during the committee’s recent hearings, including chairman Serge Joyal.

‘Boy Scouts’

Noting the U.S. Congress has six committees looking at possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, he said at one point, “We have the impression that we are little Boy Scouts in Canada – we do what we think is good and we think that by an act of God things will continue to evolve in our benefit.”

In an interview before the committee made its report, Joyal said that ”we still fall short of what should be a firewall to protect the Canadian electoral system.” As a small nation Canada can’t diplomatically threaten other countries, he said. “We defend ourselves if our legislative barriers are strong enough to be able to challenge those countries in Canadian courts if we come to the conclusion they have attempted to disrupt the Canadian electoral system.”

However, the committee decided not to hold up the legislation so it will be in effect by the time of the scheduled Oct. 21, 2019 federal election.

And while it heard officials from Google and Twitter complain about what they sare are onerous provisions requiring online platforms to compile a registry of published partisan and election advertising messages advertising during election periods, the committee didn’t recommend any changes. Instead its report urged the government to continue to work with online platforms to ensure effective methods of regulating partisan and elections advertising.

Proposed legislation

The proposed legislation doesn’t ban foreign funding, but it would regulate it in two ways:

–by preventing Canadians from using funds from a foreign entity to pay for partisan activities, partisan advertising and election surveys;

–and by prohibiting foreign third parties from directly funding partisan activities, partisan advertising and election surveys. The bill also prohibits undue influence of Canadian electors by foreigners.

The bill prohibits any person or entity from selling advertising space to a foreign entity to broadcast an election advertising message. It also makes hacking with the purpose of intefering with an election a crime.

The committee said it is concerned that the proposed legislation will allow a foreign entity to express its opinion on a desired outcome of the election through various forms of public transmission. This could allow a foreign government or other entity to encourage electors to vote for or against a party or candidate by broadcasting or publishing its message in a newspaper or other media in Canada.

However, the report also noted that in his testimony the chief electoral officer speculated that section may deal with balancing the right to freedom of speech.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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