A special committee of MPs and senators has a shot at coming to grips with foreign interference

When the legislation to create the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) was before the Senate in 2017, it was described as a "giant leap forward for national security accountability in Canada." Now, with the issue of foreign election interference, NSICOP faces its first big test.

NSICOP, still relatively new, now faces its first big test

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 9, 2023.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 9, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

When the legislation to create the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) was before the Senate in 2017, it was described as a "giant leap forward for national security accountability in Canada" by Ralph Goodale, the public safety minister at the time.

Six years later, in the midst of a major security controversy, the Official Opposition is loudly dismissing NSICOP's potential to serve as a useful forum. Michael Chong, the Conservative critic for foreign affairs, described NSICOP this week as "a secret committee with secret hearings, secret evidence and secret conclusions, all controlled by the prime minister."

Much now depends on whether NSICOP's actions in the matter of Chinese election interference come closer to reflecting Goodale's optimism or Chong's lack of regard. But some kind of test of NSICOP was probably inevitable.

Composed of up to eight MPs and three senators, NSICOP was created in 2017 with a mandate to review national security measures. Each NSICOP member is given a top security clearance and is allowed to review classified materials. Given the nature of that work, the MPs and senators who belong to the committee are sworn to secrecy and all committee business is conducted behind closed doors.

Canada had never before had a permanent committee of parliamentarians allowed to review classified material. It wasn't an original idea, though — several comparable democracies had created similar bodies already. Proposals to create a security and intelligence committee in Canada also went back several years.

Until now, NSICOP has probably suffered from a lack of attention and public awareness.

How NSICOP works

As the security analyst Wesley Wark wrote this week, it's not particularly accurate to describe NSICOP as a "secret committee" and it's not "controlled" by the prime minister. The identities of the committee members are publicly known and represent all parties. The committee chooses what it will study and its reports are released publicly.

Indeed, if Conservatives weren't so dismissive of NSICOP, they might have more room to challenge the prime minister about the committee's public warning in 2019 that the government wasn't doing enough to combat foreign interference.

It's still fair to note that NSICOP does not function like a typical House of Commons committee. Though it is a committee of parliamentarians, it is not a committee of Parliament — NSICOP was created by its own legislation and exists as an official body within the government. Its members are officially appointed by the prime minister, though the prime minister is required to consult with party and Senate leaders before doing so.

The committee's reports are also subject to redaction. According to NSICOP's enabling legislation, if publicly disclosing certain information would be "injurious to national security, national defence or international relations," or if information is "protected by litigation privilege or by solicitor-client privilege or the professional secrecy of advocates and notaries," the prime minister can direct the committee to redact it from the public version of its reports. Where redactions are made, it is noted in the report with an explanation and asterisks.

WATCH: Government House leader reacts to apparent NSICOP leak

Government House leader responds to apparent leak of NSICOP report

7 months ago
Duration 2:58
Government House leader Mark Holland says he is ‘deeply concerned that classified information in this country would be treated with such carelessness’ while speaking with reporters before the cabinet meeting.

That might seem like a significant limitation, but it's also hard to imagine how any committee — or public inquiry — with access to classified information wouldn't be subject to similar restrictions.

There have been calls to make NSICOP an actual committee of Parliament, a move that might add to its legitimacy. Its powers might also be enhanced. The United Kingdom's Intelligence and Security Committee — which was established in 1994 — is an institution of the British Parliament. But even in that case, the prime minister still has the ultimate power to demand retractions.

Notwithstanding the complaints about the design and role of NSICOP (the Conservatives also boycotted the committee for a period of time in 2021 and 2022), it does not seem that any of the major parties proposed reforms in either of the last two federal elections. Maybe next time.

But in the meantime, there is at least a chance for NSICOP to prove that it can grapple with a major issue generating intense public interest.

Can NSICOP help us understand what happened?

NSICOP said on Wednesday that it would undertake a "review of foreign interference in Canada's federal democratic processes."

"The committee recognizes the importance of preserving the integrity of our institutions, and looks forward to building upon its previous review of the government's response to foreign interference," Liberal MP David McGuinty, chair of NSICOP, said in a news release.

A man in a suit looks off camera, with three Canadian flags in the background.
Chair David McGuinty speaks about the annual report of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians during a news conference in Ottawa on April 9, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The issue of foreign interference is broad and complicated — and it extends well beyond China. NSICOP's own previous reporting on foreign interference showed as much.

NSICOP could make a significant contribution to the debate now if it can answer the questions that are consuming so much of the oxygen around Parliament Hill. What information did the government have? How credible was that information? And did the government and national security agencies do enough with that information?

"They'll be able to look at the entire picture of intelligence that the government currently possesses, which is something [the public is] not able to," Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University and a former security analyst in the federal government, said in an interview this week.

"But also I think that they can then ask questions about the veracity of sources." 

Wark argued that the Canadian government suffers from an "overzealous" approach to secrecy and certainly one test of NSICOP now will be how much it can say publicly about what it learns.

And if the Liberal government is pointing to NSICOP as an important tool for addressing the current controversy — if the Liberals want the committee they created to be regarded as valuable and legitimate — then there is some pressure on the prime minister to let the committee disclose as much as possible, perhaps even by declassifying information that normally would be withheld.

If all NSICOP is able to produce is a heavily redacted final report, the claims of a "cover up" will be renewed. (And there may be nothing absolutely stopping a member of the committee from stating publicly afterwards that they thought the government censors were overly enthusiastic.)

But it's not just in the government's interest that NSICOP work and be seen to be working. At the moment, Canada's political institutions need to show themselves capable and worthy of trust.

It would be a happy coincidence if a significant controversy about the sanctity of Canada's democratic process ended up giving a committee of parliamentarians a chance to prove its mettle.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.