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Former MP: Canadian diasporas left defenceless for decades
Q and A with Nelly Shin, who says immigrant communities "are suffering" in Canada from the regimes they tried to escape and the nature of modern "conflict is not just sending tanks overseas"
You have had a really interesting career path coming from a migrant family, you became the first Korean-Canadian elected to the House of Commons.
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This was 2019 and you were defeated in 2021.
So, in hindsight, interestingly, these are the two elections that my reports last fall revealed were subjects of major interference from a foreign state. China's United Front networks.
After becoming a civilian again, you were motivated to get into studying national security yourself.
You are also on Substack now explaining your career path.
And so I want to read from what I found, a really poignant and important quote from your recent essay, in which you argue that diaspora communities urgently need and deserve protection from foreign interference.
“For over 30 years, CSIS has been aware of intimidation tactics by hostile foreign state actors toward diaspora communities in Canada. They've been briefing Canada's governments on this problem for decades, yet there's still no specialized support measure in the system to protect targeted individuals.
This is unconscionable.
Not only have we failed our immigrant Canadians, we've enabled hostile states to target Canada as an easy playing field through years of negligence.”
I can say this is exactly what my research has found.
Also, you write that during your term, you were troubled to learn of intimidation tactics in your Vancouver-area riding.
And this was from a foreign dictatorship. You tried to help constituents but you say that the system wasn't equipped to defend them.
Before we dive in, you've also written about your family's experience as immigrants.
Can you talk about that experience, the good and the bad for immigrants and your own family coming to Canada?
I think what's really important, when I share my immigrant story and others share theirs, is to help Canadians understand what we go through. How difficult it is to establish ourselves in a new country.
It is essentially starting over, leaving behind. So my parents left South Korea. My dad had a good job. My mother was a stay-at-home mom.
They had a very good middle class life and all the relatives there. But because of continued threats of conflict between the North and South, a lot of people in the 1970s felt like, you know, we want more peace.
So they left their country. And we came to Canada looking for a better life, one that doesn't threaten me with conflicts.
And when we got here, my parents worked very hard.
They worked in a factory, and they encountered racism sometimes. As a child, you observe very quickly when you're an immigrant's daughter or son.
The nuances and the way people speak to you and treat you, you're very sensitive to that, because you yourself are in a very new environment that you're learning to trust and feel safe in.
So I had those high sensibilities growing up. But also the sensibility that my parents brought in, knowing when there's political conflict and the implications of that.
So on that note, not only my family, but many other families come to Canada looking for freedom and peace.
And a lot of people leave places that have far greater conflict and threats.
And when they come here, they want to feel like they're in the promised land, so to speak. That they've left Egypt behind.
But when you have foreign state actors, dictators still pursuing them through proxies or threatening their families abroad. Then they haven't essentially left their old homeland.
They are suffering exactly what they didn't want to suffer.
So, looking at that, it's really critical for Canadians to recognize, these people have sacrificed a lot already to be here.
But when they have to be re-traumatized by threats from abroad, that's double the load of adversity. So there has to be that understanding and empathy.
So in light of that, that's what I find unconscionable, that there was nothing done to help them for 30 years or more.
Some people such as David Mulroney, the former ambassador to China, he's become very free with his commentary, since leaving the government. He speaks towards diaspora politics.
What I gather he's saying is that, unfortunately, Canada's political class, the political parties, maybe some more than others, are treating diaspora communities almost like cheap vote banks, rather than full-fledged Canadians.
Is that a dynamic that you can speak to, or is there any valid criticism there?
I think it really does depend on the individual politician. And I don't know that they all intend to just perceive diaspora Canadians as cheap, voter potentials.
But there is definitely the fact, that where it really matters in their civil rights to vote, if there's voter suppression, and there's nothing done about it?
If there's threats coming in and there's nothing done about it, whatever the motive is, whether it's ignorance or just disrespect, it speaks to the fact that [diasporas are not] taken seriously.
And that's my greatest concern and frustration, is if they were taken seriously, it would show up in the policy.
So rather than just show up to all the different ethnic events, take photo ops, shake hands and then when they're back back in office and going on a campaign trail again and doing these things, it's actually very insulting.
It's like, we're not a circus show. We're not a petting zoo, you know.
We are human beings who are actually Canadians and we should be cared for as everyone else. And these issues should bring urgency.
And on that note, because Canada is a country of immigrants, it's really important to observe and respond to the evolution that's happening in our political landscape.
The reason why we have foreign interference and why it's able to infiltrate our communities is because there are tensions and political, for lack of a better word, baggage that comes here.
That's the reality, and it's only going to get more complicated.
So if we don't actually zoom in on those dynamics and create policy and have law enforcement, CSIS and different governmental departments be sensitive to and make policies around that, then it all just becomes messier and more complex.
And as you know, Sam, even within the diaspora communities, there are political ideologies. And the way people perceive their homeland also varies.
There's all kinds of dynamics of fear and how you respond to that fear as well.
So these are very complex dynamics that politicians need to start looking at and actually solving.
In your first term as MP you heard from constituents of your Port Moody-Coquitlam riding that were experiencing foreign interference.
This is before my reports, where we can look at, what looks like voter suppression and just some very, very aggressive activities in ridings. Let's focus on what you can say about what you heard within your own riding.
In order to protect the privacy and the safety of the constituents and whoever else approached my office, I can't speak to the details.
But what I can say is, it's consistent with the information we now have about blackmail, being followed, harassed, those kinds of things.
And it was enough to get me concerned that I tried to find a way to help them, but found that there is nothing systematic there to help them.
And how law enforcement and CSIS responds to this, I won’t speak to that per se.
But it’s obviously disappointing enough, the concept of these people who had come here for freedom, were being tracked and harassed. That is why I started taking classes and educated myself on national security.
I can't get over the sense of shock, but I don’t think the majority of Canadians really understand that people are living in ridings where certain foreign governments are active against people.
How can we get the mainstream to understand that?
It's easy to not really understand your neighbours suffering, if you don't take time to learn.
And again, it’s kind of like the politicians just in there for the photo ops and thinking like the cultural heritage is the extent of their depth and characteristics.
They also need to look at the challenges they face.
There needs to be more awareness for the public to understand the unique dynamics of international conflict that's brought over here, because so many Canadians represent different nations.
It's just the reality that the countries they were in are not necessarily in their ideology and their perception of humanity, the same as our Canadian values.
So people just need to realize not every country thinks like Canada.
That when people from other countries that are in volatile conditions come here, they're absolutely going to bring with them all the conflict and their history with that country.
So it's just more educational awareness and a desire to get to know ethnic communities a little deeper than just their cultural and heritage aspects.
And as much as our system needs to work on it, there also needs to be encouragement and healing of the diaspora here.
When you live in a country where the regime traumatizes its own people, you come with trauma, you come with fear.
That is not something the average Canadian needs to have addressed.
So the reason why threats and all those other things, and even voter suppression works, is because there's still that trauma and fear operating in that individual.
You were involved in the past two elections, 2019 and 2021, that my reporting has shown, there was deep interference.
Do you think that you, yourself could have been the target of any negative foreign interference with your election chances?
[editor’s note: Shin narrowly defeated an NDP candidate in the 2019 election and was defeated by the same NDP candidate in the 2021 election.]
I have no awareness of any interference in the first election.
But in the last election, I think any Conservative candidate, because of the bad misinformation, disinformation campaigns that were going on, whether on WeChat or whether it's in Chinese media that might be sympathetic to the regime, there was already a bad taste in people's mouths because of that [misinformation.]
So even though my riding may not have been specifically targeted, we were impacted wherever there would have been a swing riding situation, or the votes are very competitive. I think we were all hit.
I don't think it was just a campaign against an individual or two.
I think it was a campaign against the whole party because of the strong stands that were made against the human rights violations from the [Beijing] regime.
So that brings us to Jenny Kwan and Michael Chong, your colleagues. How did you respond when evidence came out that those two specifically, as well as Erin O'Toole, were directly targeted?
Well, it's shocking in the sense that we're living in a democracy and Members of Parliament, MLA’s, counsellors, mayors, whatever your role is — being able to represent the people and to be able to speak freely about our values — when you're being targeted by an outsider on that, it's scary.
It exposes the vulnerability. So what are we going do about it?
Those were my reactions.
On another hand, I wasn't surprised. Because even before I started studying national security, I just had a sense this is an area that's really messy.
And it needs to be cleaned up.
That brings us perhaps to a public inquiry. What kind of framework do you think a public inquiry should have, and do you think we'll have one?
What I can say is the goal of the public inquiry, should be for the people.
The people who benefit from it should be the Canadians. Not the politicians, but the average civilian Canadian.
Because clearly, there's been some breaches.
Regardless of how the government handled it, there's a lack of confidence, there's broken confidence, there's broken trust.
And in order for that to be restored, the goal of the public inquiry really needs to be the people of Canada benefiting from it, to have greater clarity on what actually happened, in terms of foreign interference.
There's a lot of people who have lost trust in the way the government handled this. And I think in the polls, it's the majority of Canadians.
So whether you are a Liberal voter or not a Liberal voter, that means there's more Canadians who have lost trust in this government in the way it's handled for interference.
So whatever the government's intention was or motivation was, whether it was just lack of competence or willful negligence to benefit from it electorally, it doesn't really matter what the motive was.
The people need to feel that accountability will be upheld sincerely through the public process, whatever it looks like.
And unless that happens, it's just [people think] this is a bunch of politicians who don't know what they're doing, a bunch of dirty politicians. That's what they're going to go away with.
But in order to restore that confidence, an inquiry needs to be set up, in a way where people need to be vulnerable.
All the politicians and all the people that come to the stand, so to speak, need to be vulnerable and willing to speak truthfully and allow Canadians to see that there is still goodness and honesty in the system.
The system is only as strong as the morality of the people who are interpreting it, running it, practicing it.
And I think Canadians need to see that Canada is still a country that you can trust. That it's leaders, you can trust that they're looking out for the best interest of the people and not for themselves.
What is important, is those who will participate in that process really need to do a lot of soul searching. They need to assess their relationship with Canada, why they're serving our country.
And I think it could be a beautiful moment for patriotism to be restored.
Because unless there is that heart change among the players who maybe part of that process, we are just going to see the status quo.
And it'll just be an expensive endeavour that will not restore the people's confidence and will just be another check the box.
Speaking of checking of the box and maybe some damaging of public trust, in your essay you write about David Johnston and his role as Special Rapporteur.
I have sort of special insight on that, certainly more than most people.
In my very first story [on PRC interference, in fall 2022] I wrote about an intelligence allegation, which comes from a Privy Council Office document.
A major allegation, was that the Toronto Consulate allegedly funnelled $1-million into a campaign to provide fake support for a Confucius Institute in Toronto, back in 2014.
And so I know from my research that other governments such as the United States, see Confucius Institutes as part of this United Front system of Beijing. So this was a major allegation. It didn't get too much attention, really.
I felt it was reflective of some of the other interference allegations in the 2019 election.
I don't believe Mr. Johnston had any findings on that major allegation? Could he be in some sort of hot water there?
I think David Johnston, if I could go back a little bit, he was a respectable man.
And I still think he is. He just made a really bad choice by accepting the role of Special Rapporteur.
It doesn't matter if he was connected or not to the Confucius Institute.
I think it's irrelevant how deeply involved he might have been with the [Beijing] regime and those optics. I think just the fact that he was part of the Trudeau Foundation alone, is just simple.
And the fact that there was so much dialogue with the Liberals, trying to justify why he was valid?
Is there a conflict of interest or not, by affiliation, with something [the Trudeau Foundation] that I think it is like a political arm for the Liberals.
It is very straightforward and simple.
We're not even at a public inquiry yet, but there is a lot of debate around whether Canada should have a foreign agent registry.
This isn't controversial in the United States, Australia, other countries, it's just standard sort of transparency due diligence.
But since this point has been raised in Canada, we have seen petitions from community groups saying that a foreign transparency registry would be tantamount to anti-Asian racism.
We've even seen some senior politicians in Canada making that very same argument. So what would be your comments, with such a registry, if there's any danger of racism.
First of all, the foreign registry, our allies have that.
The United States has had it since I think, the 1930s. I think the United Kingdom, I'm not sure what stage they're at. But I know they recently jumped on board with that.
It's not controversial. It's just standard. And with growing proxy wars, that is the growing concern.
Conflict is not just sending tanks overseas.
In the battlefield, the conflicts these days, because of internet technology and all sorts of things, ease with which people can travel, proxy wars are the growing thing.
And in order to counter that, we are absolutely in the age where we need a foreign registry. And I just want to remind the public that the idea of a foreign registry didn't just come up.
This is the very reason why [former Richmond MP] Kenny Chiu was probably targeted. Because he suggested the concept, and there was major reaction to that being misconstrued, et cetera.
And I want to remind again, as we move forward, to give credit where credit is due, within the diaspora community.
This is coming from a MP who is of Hong Kong origin, seeing a need for that registry. And by raising that, is he being a racist to some people?
No. It's coming from a place of concern. And in fact, I would say that if you don't have a foreign registry or any other robust ways of tracking and prosecuting, or bringing to account those who are interfering and creating threats towards diaspora communities, then Canadians will not feel secure.
With your political experience and now your national security experience, what is next for you?
Well, never in my imagination did I ever think that I was going to study national security and intelligence.
I have a humanities background. I'm a musician, I was a high school teacher. I was an outreach urban missionary.
So I've dealt with people in poor and homeless communities.
But the fact that I ended up studying this, actually in some ways, it comes from the same place. You want to care for people to make sure everyone is set up for success.
When you look at the basic hierarchy of needs, safety is huge. It's fundamental.
So although national security and intelligence looks like this big intimidating topic, in essence, it's just another way of ensuring the safety of the human being.
To feel loved and cared for and accepted and to have a safe home.
I wouldn't call myself an expert, the way I've seen others who talk about national security.
I've gleaned enough to perceive gaps. And there's definitely a gap in this area of not protecting our diaspora communities who are targeted.
And for the average Canadian, with proxy wars growing, Canada needs to fortify its national security.
So on that trajectory, I would like to continue contributing. Whether it's policy making or connecting with the communities impacted.
And in terms of political interests, a lot of my interest is around the legislation.
So I hope I will have an opportunity in the future to be able to be part of that process as well.
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