Undermining Democracy: My Encounter with Chinese Espionage and the Assault on Canada’s Institutions

Mark Bourrie Mar 17, 2023

In April, 2012, the Dalai Lama visited Ottawa. At the time, I was selling articles to a Chinese news service. It was a deeply weird experience that ended when the Ottawa Xinhua “bureau chief” asked me to try to find out what Prime Minister Stephen Harper and His Holiness talked about in their private meeting.

When I asked if that was for a story, he said no. He was going to send the information to Beijing.

That’s spying.

I wrote a letter to the news agency explaining why I saw this as espionage, and forwarded a copy to the Parliamentary Press gallery. Its executive – all journalists – said my allegations were an employment dispute. Soon, my life in the gallery became unpleasant and I hived off to law school.

In 2012, the federal government was all-in on China, as was most of the rest of the Western world. The enemy du jour was still Islamic extremism. Remember ISIS? Canada wanted into the Chinese market and needed Chinese capital. Our corporations were eager to move production offshore. Our universities were forging alliances with Chinese institutions. China was in the World Trade Organization and was supposed to be evolving into a bourgeois capitalist power. 

And all this was before Justin Trudeau was a contender.

My own experience with the Chinese convinced me that many of them were utterly ignorant of Canada and its government. One time, the Xinhua bureau chief pestered me to ask for an interview with the Governor-General. He believed the GG ran the country because he was at the top of the organizational chart.

Another time, he insisted on knowing how Canada prosecuted “evil cults”. He simply could not wrap his brain around the idea that Canada does not prosecute people for what they think, only for what they do.

In his mind, senators were more important than MPs. The power centres in politics and the public service were utter mysteries to him. Eventually, this guy was caught snooping around the cockpit of a helicopter during one of Harper’s arctic trips and had his wings clipped.

There may be – almost certainly are – better Chinese agents out there. Like the U.S., Israel, France, Britain, Russia and every other power in the world, the Chinese have interests and preferences in Canada. Whether they have seriously altered the political landscape remains to be seen. I think it’s unlikely that they’ve done much outside the Chinese diaspora, but I’m convinced they intimidate many ethnic Chinese Canadians and that needs to stop.

Now, if the Chinese want to take down Canadian democratic and rule-of-law institutions, they should forge stronger ties with the Conservative Party of Canada.

The Conservatives attack the judiciary when things don’t go their way. For instance, they smeared Mr. Justice Paul Rouleau of the Ontario Court of Appeal when his inquiry report into the February 2022 Ottawa occupation found Justin Trudeau and his cabinet were justified in invoking the Emergencies Act.

The Canadian right attacked Justice Rouleau and some of the judges who heard the “convoy” leaders’ bail request as “Liberal judges,” as though judges in Canada run for office and are partisan. Yes, most judges (who must be lawyers for at least ten years before their appointment) have been politically active at some point in their lives. Some supported the Liberals. Some supported the Tories. On the bench, Canadian judges try hard to be apolitical.

The Tories are quick to point out judges who were appointed by Liberal governments and very slow to draw attention to judges appointed by Stephen Harper and Brian Mulroney. It seems Liberal appointees are steeped in prejudice while Tory appointees are not.

This kind of attack undermines the rule of law, which is the foundation of our system of government and is the primary reason for the economic success of the West. It’s not a coincidence that a country’s enforcement of contracts and other property rights directly correlates to its prosperity. There isn’t a single country on earth where human rights are not enforced that is not an economic basket case, riddled with corruption.

Now we’re seeing a right-wing assault on former Governor-General David Johnston, of all people. Johnston is the Canadian establishment made flesh. Lawyer, law prof, university president. Member of umpteen prestigious boards. 

I have my own issues with Johnston. He was the expert brought in by Stephen Harper to decide if a full inquiry was needed into the alleged kickbacks by Airbus to senior Conservatives, including Brian Mulroney.  He was Harper’s rapporteur on that issue, and he decided Canadians had heard enough.

It wasn’t long before Harper appointed him Governor-General, though people in all of the political parties saw him as a good choice. He did end up being one of the better recent GGs, partly because we never heard anything about him. He didn’t make political statements. He gave out awards and hosted foreign visitors, work that takes much of the load off the Prime Minister, but stayed out of sight. 

But now, according to Terry Glavin, Rebel News and other bottom-feeders, Johnston is, and always was, a tool of China. 

Hell, everyone’s a tool of China. Ethnic Chinese MPs? Tools of China. Chines-Canadian MPP? Tool of China (but keep it don, this guy’s a Tory). Chinese-Canadians on Vancouver city council? Beijing’s stooges. There’s a word for that line of thinking.

China does want soft power and influence. Investigations in Australia and other countries have shown that. But why do we have to make this partisan? Why can’t Canadian security agencies – who, so far, have done more betraying than investigating – get to the bottom of this? And if CSIS had real evidence that the government was ignoring, that’s not a problem anymore.

Andrew Coyne says Johnston’s unfit because he knows Trudeau. Hell, I know Trudeau. In 2020, he said my biography of Pierre Radisson, Bush Runner was his favorite non-fiction book that year. Welcome to the Canadian establishment, where everyone knows everybody – Coyne’s stock in trade, by the way – and if they don’t, members of their families do.

It’s clear that Pierre Poilievre wants to slither into office on a skid-mark of smear. He has no boundaries, no ethics, no concern about the damage to Canada, no scruples at all. The PostMedia newspaper chain – a real, destructive foreign interest, if anyone’s actually looking – is Poilievre’s megaphone. It doesn’t matter how many decent people, including Paul Rouleau and David Johnston, are collateral damage. The juggernaut goes on.  

This country does face an existential crisis. Its most important democratic and rule of law institutions are under serious attack and may not survive. Its most respected leaders are being driven from the public sphere, and talented people now see the price they’ll pay if they try to contribute to politics by donating or running for office.

Our institutions are being torn down and humiliated. 

And Canadians are doing it.


Mark Bourrie

Related stories