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Last December, Canadian news outlets from Global News to CBC caught wind of a unique policy development in Ottawa. In an interview with CBC, Public Safety Minister Marco Mencino announced plans to begin a public consultation on creating a “foreign agent registry” in Canada, to track foreign interference in elections and other aspects of Canadian life. Under the official title of Foreign Influence Transparency Registry, the federal government launched its public consultation on March 10 this year and let the online questionnaire remain publicly open until May 9. While most mainstream news outlets have shied away from diving deeper into this policy proposal, the public consultation offers lots to unpack. At the same time, lawmakers are drafting the legislation at a time when foreign agent laws have become a hot-button political issue across the globe.

Canada will not be the first country to pass a foreign agent bill. South of the border, the United States has had a bill, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), in place since 1938. The long-standing legislation emphasizes the influence of a foreign principal, which has a loose definition, ranging from a foreign government or political party to any individual living outside the United States. FARA works alongside the US Lobbying Disclosure Act to track outside influence on American political objectives while making exceptions for diplomats, “bona fide” commercial agents, and humanitarian fundraisers. 

FARA stands as the gold standard of foreign agent laws. In 2018, Australia passed a similar piece of legislation, its Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, with the only major difference being its emphasis on defining foreign principles as openly political figures. The UK is also currently drafting its own two-tiered national security bill. It would require the registration of “political influence activities” for any activity benefiting a foreign power or entity and grant the Home Secretary power to designate a “foreign power” or “foreign power controlled entity” to protect domestic interests. Experts in Canada speculate that a similar bill will be drafted in Ottawa, emphasizing election interference, to increase transparency after allegations surfaced claiming that China actively interfered in several ridings of recent election cycles.

A Force Only for Good?

Foreign agent laws have found a more troubling trajectory in other parts of the world. In Russia, for example, a 2012 law on foreign influence has been used to suppress the work of NGOs, independent media, and individuals critical of the Putin regime for over ten years now. Eilish Hart, a journalist and editor for Meduza, which provides critical news coverage of Russia and other post-Soviet countries, explained the law’s development as a “snowball effect.” “You could be declared a media foreign agent, [allowing] them to crack down on independent media outlets [and start] declaring individual people as foreign agents. And it was usually not just slapping this label on an NGO or a media organization but on an individual journalist or civil society activist,” she explained to me in an interview last month. 

Over the years, the law has sent shockwaves across Russian society. As Hart describes, the most tangible effects are an exhaustive bureaucratic punishment. “For an independent media outlet or NGO working in Russia,” she says, “they’re probably working with an extremely limited budget to begin with, so to keep up with the administrative requirements of this is extremely burdensome.” On top of this, the law’s amendments over the past decade have allowed Putin’s government to usher in a new era of cold war stigma attached to the label. “The implications of being called a foreign agent,” she says, “[are] kind of hard to explain to an English speaker just how sinister that sounds.”

At the same time, journalists, news outlets, and civil society have learned to push back on this repressive measure. While Hart could not comment on behalf of Meduza, she did speak to cases where individuals and organizations are fighting the law and the stigma that comes with it. In addition to the well-documented case of a popular Russian rapper deemed a foreign agent last fall, Hart pointed to journalists Sonya Groysman and Olga Churakova. They were labeled foreign agents by the Russian government in 2021 and went on to develop a podcast to document the process. The podcast Hi, You’re A Foreign Agent («привет, ты иноагент» in Russian) gave the pair a platform to discuss “what it’s like for an individual to be declared as a foreign agent,” Hart says. “They’re just two very normal, very young women, trying to do their jobs, who [became]the poster children for what this does to an individual.”

A Global Phenomenon, to What End?

When I asked Hart about a foreign agent bill in Canada, she hesitated to draw an immediate connection with Russia’s law. “When you hear officials talk about it,” she said, “they’re drawing really clear links to the FARA Act in the United States, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and also the recent foreign agent law that they have in Australia. Canadian government officials are not drawing any comparisons to the type of foreign agent laws that we’ve seen in countries like Russia.” She did highlight that early in its implementation, Russian lawmakers also drew comparisons to FARA, but she pushed back on a direct link between the two: “I think it’s just a case of foreign influence implying two different things in different contexts.”

We spoke briefly about similar bills recently proposed in Georgia, where lawmakers flopped at selling their plan as a replica of FARA. “Georgian officials tried to do what Russian officials did,” Hart explained, “and it did not fly at all.” For Meduza, Hart published her sweeping report on the Georgian foreign agent protests in March of this year. Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi erupted into protest after the government had announced potential foreign agent bills. Protesters by and large were fearful that the laws would erode Georgian civil society like they had in Russia. In our interview, Hart noted some parallels to what is happening in Canada. “The title of it [the Georgian law] is almost exactly the same as what Canada is proposing,” she said, “but people saw that and they immediately went: foreign agent law [equals] Russian law [and] we don’t want this.” While Canada may successfully draw parallels to the similar legislature in the US, Australia, and the UK, Hart says “in the post-Soviet space, at least, nobody’s buying that at all.”

Canadians who visit the public consultation web page will likely come away uncertain of what lawmakers plan to include in the proposed Foreign Influence Transparency Registry. “I read it and I don’t understand what you’re trying to do here,” Hart confided. “You’re not really presenting a piece of legislation on anything,” she added, “it’s a very nebulous idea that foreign influence needs to be countered. There’s no really clear proposal, so it’s kind of hard to grapple with.” She drew links to the EU’s recent proposal for a similar foreign agent law meant to fight interference from China. In the wake of Georgia’s protests, where EU officials made statements of solidarity with protestors, Hart says “the [EU’s] announcement was very nebulous and unclear in terms of what exactly this legislation would look like.” 

While Canadians wait for Ottawa to shed light on how our foreign agent law will look, the global context should encourage a healthy dose of skepticism. While the public consultation page allowed visitors to share their thoughts before lawmakers begin to draft legislation, to learn what lies ahead, we will just have to wait and see.

Edited by Alexandra Hu

Jack McClelland

Jack McClelland (he/him) is a writer and translator based in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). He earned his B.A. in International Relations, English literature, and Russian at the University of British Columbia,...