Vancouver city councillors Pete Fry and Sarah Kirby-Yung say they are concerned Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s public comments related to a meeting with Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) officials will further stoke anti-Asian sentiment in the city
The concerns are based on Stewart revealing first to Postmedia and then to other media including Vancouver Is Awesome that one of the officials he met with May 30 was from CSIS’s China desk and that foreign interference in policy making and elections were topics.
“Given the limited amount of information and context otherwise provided, mention of China specifically seemed unnecessary and unfortunate as it likely will fuel anti-Asian sentiment,” said Fry via email in response to questions from V.I.A.
Kirby-Yung noted the increase in anti-Asian hate and racism in Vancouver since the pandemic was declared in March 2020. The Vancouver Police Board heard last week that anti-Asian hate crime reports were up 122 per cent since 2019.
“Anything that others Chinese-Canadians and stokes division against local residents is harmful and incredibly concerning to me,” Kirby-Yung said in a text message. “As elected officials, we have a responsibility to ensure any issues are handled with care and sensitivity.”
The mayor’s meeting with CSIS was noted in Stewart’s public calendar, which can be viewed on the city’s website. Stewart said he was being transparent by disclosing the meeting. The entry doesn’t indicate names of the CSIS officials or meeting topic.
It was only when reporters asked for details about the meeting that he revealed the topic of foreign interference and the presence of a CSIS official with expertise on China. Stewart was joined by one of his chiefs of staff, Neil Monckton, in the meeting that lasted almost two hours.
“They wanted to brief me on foreign interference and the variety of forms that it could take in terms of foreign interference in both policy making and elections,” said Stewart, describing the meeting as “a highly unusual thing.”
In seven years as a member of parliament in Ottawa, which included sitting on the justice and other committees, Stewart was never briefed by CSIS, he said.
“They walked us through eight different ways in which foreign governments can influence government policy,” he said. “They provided this information in a general way, and then with specific examples — but not from the City of Vancouver, but from other publicly known examples, both here and abroad.”
Added Stewart: “They didn't really give any reasons why they did this, and they didn't say, ‘Look out for this specific thing.’ But again, for me, it's highly unusual that they would do this. And they told me so themselves.”
Richmond mayor briefed by CSIS
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie was also briefed recently by CSIS officials, according to Richmond’s director of communications Clay Adams, who said it was made clear to the mayor not to discuss the topic of the meeting.
Stewart is seeking re-election in October and his main challengers include the NPA’s John Coupar, Colleen Hardwick of Team for a Livable Vancouver, Ken Sim of the ABC party and Mark Marissen of Progress Vancouver.
Coupar, Hardwick and Marissen all confirmed Wednesday that they had not met with CSIS officials.
When Kareem Allam, Sim’s campaign manager, was asked whether Sim met with CSIS, Allam replied: “We do not comment on our interaction with law enforcement agencies, or any engagement we would have had with the national intelligence security apparatus.”
Allam said Sim and the campaign team were concerned by the mayor’s willingness to reveal details to reporters about the meeting with CSIS and argued it was more about politics than transparency.
Sim, who is of Chinese descent, narrowly lost to Stewart in the 2018 election.
“If it was an issue of national security, then why would you talk about it in the media?” Allam said. “So it's obviously not an issue of national security. His motives for bringing it up and talking about it the way he has is purely political.”
Added Allam: "This wasn't a dog whistle, this was a fog horn."
Stewart has denied such an allegation, saying in an email that “I take CSIS' concerns about foreign interference and their request to meet with me very seriously and will do all within my power to ensure the democratic integrity of our system.”
The city’s communications department said in an email that city staff have not met with CSIS officials. But said the city has measures in place to protect the integrity of its technical infrastructure and that it conducts regular training with staff about the threat of cybercrime.
Brandon Champagne, a media relations representative with CSIS, wouldn’t discuss the purpose of the meeting with Stewart but said the agency routinely engages with “a variety of stakeholders.”
That includes government and elected officials, the private sector and other organizations to discuss “potential threats to the security and interests of Canada and provide briefings regarding specific threats.”
“State-sponsored foreign interference directed at Canada’s democratic institutions and processes, at all levels of government, can be an effective way for foreign states to achieve their immediate, medium and long-term strategic objectives,” Champagne said in an email.
“As the world has become smaller and more competitive, foreign states seek to leverage all elements of state power to advance their own national interests and position themselves in a rapidly evolving geopolitical environment.”
CSIS officials gave Stewart a booklet titled “Foreign interference and you,” an unclassified document that is available on CSIS’s website. It lists “common techniques” used by actors to interfere in government, including elicitation, illicit financing, relationship building, blackmail, cyber tools and social media manipulation.
In July 2021, CSIS issued a public report, “Foreign Interference: Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process”, which includes a section on threats to elected and public officials at all levels of government.
“State actors may use deceptive means to cultivate a relationship with electoral candidates or their staff in order to covertly obtain information to be used later to their advantage through, for example, threats and blackmail,” the report said.
“Alternatively, a state actor may decide to recruit the individual over time in the hopes of greater gains if the individual is elected. After a long period of cultivation there are more opportunities to gain leverage over the official which can be used to pressure the individual into influencing debate and decision-making within government. The individual may also be able to hinder or delay initiatives that are contrary to the foreign state’s interest.”
In 2010, then-CSIS director Richard Fadden hinted in an interview with CBC that China was one of the countries wielding influence on B.C. municipal politicians. He also suggested two unnamed cabinet ministers from two provinces were being influenced by foreign governments.
Fadden later appeared before a parliamentary subcommittee but refused to name names or elaborate on his claims, which incensed the local Chinese community and then-Vancouver councillors George Chow and Dr. Kerry Jang.
Both Chow and Jang wrote letters to Fadden expressing their concerns about casting aspersions on municipal politicians of Chinese descent. Gregor Robertson, who was mayor at the time, also wrote to Fadden.
None of the politicians received a response, according to Jang, who later confronted Fadden in Ottawa to challenge him on his claims, but said he was rebuffed. V.I.A. sent an email this week to Fadden’s email address at the University of Ottawa, but didn’t receive a response.
Jang mentioned the Fadden story in expressing his disappointment this week with Stewart mentioning a CSIS official with expertise on China participated in the May 30 meeting.
“It just feeds the anti-China narrative that was really set by Fadden back in 2010, and it just got worse under Trump,” said Jang, who did not seek re-election in 2018 after several years as a Vision Vancouver councillor. “I've been putting up with this right through the pandemic. My kids have been assaulted, I've been yelled at and I got it worse because I'm a health care worker.”
Jang said he is a member of two Chinese family associations, has travelled overseas to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan as a politician and private citizen, and has not been targeted by any people hoping to interfere in Canada’s affairs.
"There was never anything that was untoward," said Jang, who endorsed Stewart for mayor in 2018 but said he won't vote for him in October.
'New level of hostility'
Glacier Media reported in April 2021 that Stewart suspended all meeting requests and contact with Chinese government officials, including an invitation at the time to meet with China’s ambassador to Canada.
The mayor’s move was in response to China announcing sanctions at the time on individuals in the United States and Canada, including friend and Conservative MP Michael Chong.
“It’s threatening and intimidating and I know that he’s taking it in stride, but that’s reaching a new level of hostility — that’s not diplomacy, that’s bullying,” said Stewart, who released a book with Chong and Liberal MP Scott Simms in 2017 about reforming democracy in Canada.
Stewart emphasized his reason for taking a stand against the Chinese government is not solely personal, but aimed at denouncing human rights violations in China and the detention at the time of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
Stewart said this week he continues to maintain the same stance on China.
'A delicate balance'
Professor Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, spent 22 years of his years in the Canadian foreign service working on Chinese affairs for the Government of Canada.
Houlden’s take on Stewart’s meeting with CSIS officials is that it was “normal business” for the country’s security intelligence service — and that he wasn’t “troubled or surprised” by the agency meeting with a politician.
When asked about the mayor’s mention of the CSIS expert on China, Houlden said there is always a risk that saying anything about China can be misinterpreted and lead to anti-Asian sentiment locally, depending on the context of what is said.
“But it's like so many things in life — it's complicated,” he said.
“It's important that agencies do business. On the other hand, it should be done with sensitivity. I am not party to the ins and outs of Vancouver city politics — I'm really not qualified to speak on that — but to simply make a note of a meeting is not in itself [a concern], but if that had been combined with some anti-Chinese statement, that'd be a different story. So I think that we have to be sensitive, but not hypersensitive.”
Added Houlden: “So it's a delicate balance. And I think people in the media and myself try to walk that line where we're not being naive and yet not being inflammatory. So it's a tricky thing.”
Meanwhile, Fry, who is seeking re-election in October, said he has always been concerned about any and all kinds of outside and “unelected influence” — be it from developers, lobbyists or foreign governments.
“The integrity of our system is predicated by transparency and accountability,” he said. “I had concerns in the last election about foreign government influence, though until now I had not given much thought to foreign government influence with this council. I am thinking about it now.”