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The federal government is currently consulting Canadians about creating a Foreign Influence Transparency Registry. The registry, which may soon be established, could require each of us to declare our relations to “foreign principals,” a category that includes foreign governments, businesses, organizations, groups and individuals.
Political pressure is mounting on the government to take quick action. Federal Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre has demanded the Liberals set a firm date for the launch of the registry. Some advocacy groups in Canada demand that it take effect before the next federal election while media outlets produce disturbing headlines about China.
Canadians are right to be concerned about foreign interference in our democracy. Nonetheless, given our history, we should be very wary of policies that will affect not the foreign governments with whom we have conflicts, but rather the civil rights of people here in Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged what he called Canada’s “difficult historical experiences” and cited the internment of Japanese and Italian Canadians as reason to be cautious.
Nonetheless, information circulated by the Ministry of Public Safety suggests that if a registry is created, Canadians who advocate viewpoints deemed favourable to foreign interests might be fined or imprisoned, even in cases when they’ve received no payment or benefit for expressing those views. People accused of intending to express such viewpoints might also be penalized, even if they’ve not yet done so.
Given current political and media outcry about alleged Chinese interference in Canada, it seems clear that not all foreign liaisons would fare equally under such a policy. A Canadian having dinner at the French embassy would imply one thing, while doing so at the Chinese embassy would imply something else altogether.
Really, this is about countries with whom Canada finds itself in conflict. What’s being proposed is a registry of enemy agents.
This is dangerous territory.
The proposed registry sets off my alarm bells, given my research over the past decade on the uprooting, internment, dispossession and exile of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s. I think it should do the same for all Canadians.
In 1941, three-quarters of people of Japanese descent in Canada were British subjects of Canada, citizens by the law of the time. Months before Japan attacked allied bases in the Pacific, officials created a registry of Japanese Canadians. Secretly, security personnel began to compile lists of those suspected of advocating enemy interests.
Once Canada and Japan were at war, Japanese Canadians suffered through a cascade of injustice. They were uprooted from their homes, and then everything that they had been forced to leave behind was seized and sold by the government. The sale of the homes, businesses and personal belongings of Japanese Canadians made no one safer.
When the war ended in 1945, Canadian officials still refused to permit them to return to their former communities. Instead, almost 4,000 people were sent to Japan, and the remainder were denied civil rights until 1949. Internment in Canada was, for most of its duration, a policy of the postwar, not of military crisis.
These decisions reflected a history of racism that long predated the war. But injustice also stemmed from government officials improvising policies to deal with problems they felt had been thrust upon them.
Read more: Why the growing number of foreign agent laws around the world is bad for democracy
In reality, the challenges they faced were often of the government’s own creation. When all Japanese Canadians were uprooted from coastal British Columbia, officials were handed the responsibility of storing and caring for their property. This task was hard. Auctions and sales were much easier. So, forced sale became the solution to an administrative problem created by mass displacement, especially when the property owners were regarded by many as second class citizens.
As the war came to a close, officials contemplated mass expulsion to Japan because many of them believed that people of Japanese descent could never really be Canadian. At the same time, they felt they were solving the administrative challenge of finding a place for interned people whose homes had been sold.
Registration facilitated uprooting and internment. Displacement enabled dispossession. Expulsion came next. Policies follow pathways. One decision sets a course for others, and injustice can cascade in ways unforeseen (or at least not widely acknowledged or endorsed) at the start.
Today, most people of Chinese origin in Canada are citizens of this country. Even advocates of a foreign agent registry, like former Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney, acknowledge that we cannot have a serious discussion about registering the agents of Chinese interference without also considering its impacts upon Chinese Canadians.
Proponents claim that the registry is in no way inherently racist and that it would protect Chinese Canadians.
But the terms being floated in public consultation about the policy are vague and expansive. The net being cast is alarmingly wide.
Given its breadth, the government cannot possibly imagine that every point of contact between a Canadian and any “foreign principal” will be registered. The registry, like the policies of the 1940s, will generate further problems that administrators will need to resolve.
New policies and regulations could affect community organizations with ties in countries with which we have conflict, businesses with partnerships abroad, travellers, students, journalists and academics. An enemy agent registry would place Canada on a new pathway to an uncertain destination.
Canadians answering the government’s call for feedback should weigh their answers carefully. If we’ve learned from our history — from the intersection of conflict, security, migration and racism in the Canadian past — we should practice caution and moderation. Will Canada really be safer with this registry of enemy agents? What future harms remain unforeseen? Who will suffer them?