By Robert Fife and Steven chase
February 22, 2023
The Canadian military found and retrieved Chinese monitoring buoys in the Arctic this past fall, a development whose public exposure adds another item to a list of pressing concerns about Beijing’s interventions in Canadian affairs, including interference in recent federal elections.
The buoys were spotted by the Canadian Armed Forces as part of Operation Limpid, a continuing effort to provide early detection of threats to Canada’s security. Earlier this month, the North American Aerospace Defence Command shot down a different Chinese surveillance device: a high-altitude balloon that traversed North America before it was destroyed.
Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations at the Department of National Defence, did not provide details on the effort to retrieve the buoys, but confirmed the interception.
“The Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are fully aware of recent efforts by China to conduct surveillance operations in Canadian airspace and maritime approaches utilizing dual-purpose technologies,” he said in a statement. Dual-purpose technology is equipment that can be used for both civilian and military applications.
“Under Operation LIMPID, the CAF monitors Canada’s air, land and sea approaches, and since 2022, it has stopped attempts to surveil Canadian territory,” he added.
He declined to elaborate on what was found. “To ensure the integrity of operations, we are unable to provide further information at this time,” he said.
Retired lieutenant-general Michael Day said the Chinese buoys would likely have been used to monitor U.S. nuclear submarine traffic in the Arctic, and for mapping seabeds and ice thickness. Beijing is eyeing shipping through northern waters, which are becoming more navigable as a result of climate change.
“China, like most nations, is super interested in the pretty significant changes that are happening up north. They do not have an icebound port, but they do have a rapidly growing icebreaking fleet,” he said. Travel through the Arctic would be significantly shorter for Chinese ships than navigating around the southern tip of South America, he noted.
Mr. Day said Beijing is also interested in trying to exploit the Arctic seabed’s significant resource deposits, and in keeping tabs on Canadian and U.S. military activities.
Since the fall, Parliament has been grappling with allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian politics. The Commons committee on procedure and House affairs has been probing whether Beijing meddled in the 2019 federal election.
The committee met Tuesday to expand its study to include the 2021 election, in response to a report in The Globe and Mail that Chinese diplomats and their proxies had worked to influence voters to elect a Liberal minority that year, and defeat Conservatives whom Beijing viewed as anti-China.
Based on secret and top secret Canadian Security and Intelligence Service documents, The Globe revealed that China’s tactics in 2021 included making illegal cash donations, spreading disinformation and using paid students to help preferred Liberal candidates.
“This should alarm every Canadian, and it should most certainly alarm those who have responsibility to protect Canada’s democratic institutions,” Conservative MP Michael Cooper told the committee on Tuesday. “It should have prompted immediate action by the government, but that did not happen.”
The Conservatives tabled a motion at the committee, supported by the Bloc Québécois, to call for testimony from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, as well as former public safety minister Bill Blair and former foreign affairs minister Marc Garneau. Both men held those portfolios during the 2021 election.
Liberal MPs, along with NDP MP Peter Julian, voted against calling those officials, and the motion failed. They agreed nevertheless to expand the scope of the committee’s study to include the 2021 election.
The Liberals and NDP have a confidence and supply agreement, under which the New Democrats support the Trudeau government on confidence matters. Mr. Cooper accused the NDP of helping the government block a fuller inquiry.
The Conservatives on the committee had also wanted the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to submit all 2021-election-related documents, including those viewed by The Globe, to the Commons Law Clark for redaction and release to the committee. But that proposal was dropped when it became clear it would not have the support of the Liberals and NDP.
“We are seeing the Liberal-NDP coalition at work covering up the inaction of the Prime Minister to respond to this serious issue … They would like to whitewash and hide material from this committee,” Mr. Cooper said in an interview. “More than 18 months after the 2021 election there is no evidence that any action was taken by this government. There have been no charges laid. No diplomats expelled.”
The NDP’s Mr. Julian said The Globe’s reports about foreign interference in the past federal election “are rightly, incredibly concerning to Canadians.” He said he intends to introduce a motion to compel the government to produce documents about foreign interference.
“This has to be done in a thoughtful way, to ensure Canadians have the answers they need. The information in The Globe’s report shows that the Election Act was likely contravened – the law seems to have been broken – and this cannot stand,” he said.
The Globe has reported that CSIS warned the government that Beijing had allegedly interfered in the 2019 federal election, through an orchestrated and organized campaign that covertly supported at least 11 federal candidates (nine Liberals and two Conservatives).
In response to The Globe’s story on the 2021 election, Mr. Trudeau told reporters at a Friday news conference that he expects CSIS to find out who is leaking the secret reports. And he reiterated his long-held view that Chinese interference operations did not affect the overall results of the 2019 and 2021 elections.
“It’s certainly a sign that security within CSIS needs to be reviewed. And I’m expecting CSIS to take the issue very seriously,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell accused the committee’s Conservatives on Tuesday of being “reckless” in seeking top secret documents in a public forum, calling their efforts “nothing more than a fishing expedition.”
The Globe has also reported that Canadian politicians, officials and business executives are main targets of Chinese government espionage that employs blackmail, bribery and sexual seduction, with Beijing even enlisting the Bank of China in its foreign-influence activities.
Secret and top-secret CSIS documents viewed by The Globe outline how China instructed its consulates and visa offices to alert Beijing to prominent and influential Canadians – whom it called “work targets” – planning to visit China.
In addition, the Bank of China has been told to inform consulates of the travel plans of Canadian business executives attending conferences sponsored by the state-owned financial institution, according to a Feb. 2, 2022 intelligence report that is rated top secret.
Documents also show that Chinese diplomats quietly issued warnings to “friendly” influential Canadians in early 2022, advising them to reduce their contact with federal politicians to avoid being caught up in foreign-interference investigations by Canada’s spy agency.