The head of Canada’s national security and intelligence apparatus stressed internal threats such as racism and extremist ideology — as well as organizational diversity — as chief priorities during a speech at the University of British Columbia Wednesday.
However, the message from Canadian Security Intelligence Services director David Vigneault was met with some criticism from a former member of Parliament alleging election interference on the part of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) proxies or sympathizers.
Kenny Chiu, former Steveston-Richmond East MP, said he was eager to learn what CSIS is doing to address foreign interference in Canadian elections, after he was unelected in September 2021 following allegations of an online misinformation campaign against him orchestrated by pro-Beijing entities — allegations that have yet to produce a response from government officials.
However, Chiu considered Vigneault’s address more “woke” than being in line with typical national security threats.
“Apparently diversity, equity and inclusion will solve all our problems,” said Chiu, tongue-in-cheek following Vigneault’s speech.
Vigneault started his 20-minute speech at the university’s Institute for Asian Research by acknowledging Asian Heritage Month and unceded First Nations land.
He discussed internal terrorist threats; namely lone actors conducting "ideologically motivated violence," such as the 2021 truck attack on a random Muslim family in Ontario that killed four members, or the 2018 van attack by a misogynist in Toronto that killed 11 people.
Vigneault then segued into expressing concern for groups traditionally targeted by racism, discrimination and harassment.
“I will not mince my words, there is no place for Islamophobia, anti-Semitism or hate in any form,” said Vigneault.
Vigneault also spoke about improving diversity within CSIS.
“Recognizing the value of diversity and inclusion in CSIS practices and policies, helps CSIS deliver its mandate much more effectively. Building cultural competence and understanding and learning to apply an intersectional lens helps us to better connect with all the communities that we serve,” he said.
Vigneault did touch on foreign interference midway through his speech.
“Elected and public officials across all levels of government, representing all political parties, staff, public servants, are also potential targets of foreign interference. Virtually anyone with input or an influence over the public policy-making and decision-making process is an attractive target for those who look to advance their interests covertly,” he said, without naming any country specifically.
Chiu proposed a foreign agent registry while in Ottawa last year to curb misinformation and improper lobbying. However, the Hong Kong native said he suspects people aligned with the CCP spread misinformation about the registry, to make him appear anti-China, if not anti-Chinese.
The Chinese social media messages also targeted the Conservative Party of Canada, which happened to lose a significant share of the votes across Canadian ridings with high mainland Chinese populations, such as Richmond, despite the party gaining votes nationwide.
Vigneault took hand-picked questions from moderators at the UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs; the first concerning hate-motivated violence and the second concerning minority representation in CSIS.
“The work we've been doing on diversity, equity and inclusion inside your organization has been quite telling,” Vigneault responded.
Vigneault also addressed past criticisms of CSIS potentially targeting First Nations activists. He said those critiques are unfounded and CSIS’ mandate is to target threats, not people. He said his first external stakeholder meeting as director in 2017 was with a First Nation group that he shared classified information with to counter claims made in media.
Vigneault was then asked about security threats from the People’s Republic of China.
He prefaced his comments by saying Canada and China have “very vibrant” exchanges and engagement that is to the “benefit of both countries” and that “threat activities is not coming from Chinese citizens; it's coming from the actions and directions of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Vigneault said, “unfortunately, in the last number of years, we have seen an increase in activities by China that has been, you know, directed at our values, our economic prosperity, our democracy.”
He also said CSIS is “precise” in targeting activities in its threat analysis and is “not in the business of looking at everything that China does is a threat.”
Chiu said Vigneault’s speech and answers came across like a narrative.
“It's consistent to the narrative right now, when you talk about foreign interference, the first thing they bring up is, ‘diversity is our strength; our problem is with the CCP not with the Chinese people; discrimination is not acceptable; yada, yada, yada.’
“There was nothing solid about how do you secure Canada’s national security, national safety; nothing like that,” said Chiu.
The one-term MP said he would have hoped to have heard more information about online misinformation threats stemming from authoritarian regimes, such as Iran, Russia and China.
“They need to think of something that actually fits more into their realm of responsibility. And not these peripheral motherhood type of policies,” said Chiu, adding that racism is a matter that needs to be addressed in society, but it is also one that is being “weaponized” by hostile foreign states.
Vigneault acknowledged issues within minority communities can be exploited: "Hostile activity by state actors also targets the fabric of Canada’s multicultural society, seeking to influence Canadian communities through threats, manipulation and coercion," said Vigneault.
Added Vigneault, "I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that much of this activity is taking place in the cyber realm."
Chiu and Hong Kong-Canadian democracy advocates in Vancouver claim CCP-connected individuals equate criticism of the Chinese government to racism, for example.
Chiu noted the speech’s location came with some irony, with Vigneault speaking at the C.K. Choi Building, named after the father of David Choi, the executive director of the National Congress of Chinese Canadians, which openly defends CCP policies, including the national security law in Hong Kong.
Choi was among the most vocal critics of Vigneault’s predecessor Richard Fadden, who stated in 2010 that Canadian politicians have been compromised by foreign states. Fadden never named China but media speculation led to some Chinese community leaders to criticize Fadden, who would later resign in 2013.
Choi would later become an assistant for BC Liberal MLA Teresa Wat, who openly advocated for B.C.’s participation in Chinese president Xi Jinping’s foreign investment scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative.