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Canada’s leading research universities are expressing significant concerns about the potential “chilling effect” of a proposed foreign influence transparency registry on international academic partnerships. This warning comes as the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities urges Members of Parliament to consider modifications to the legislation currently under review.

The transparency registry is a central element of a comprehensive anti-foreign interference bill, which is being expedited through the House of Commons committee. This bill aims to introduce new criminal penalties for covert actions, facilitate the sharing of sensitive information with non-government entities, and establish a registry to track foreign influence.

The proposed registry would mandate certain individuals to register their associations with foreign entities to prevent covert foreign interference in Canada. Failure to comply could result in significant financial penalties or criminal charges.

Key Concerns from U15 Canada

In a detailed submission to the committee, U15 Canada outlined several issues with the registry’s reporting requirements. The group emphasized the difficulty large research-intensive universities would face in tracking and reporting every individual research collaboration within the 14-day window mandated by the registry. The brief highlighted that these extensive international networks are crucial for cutting-edge research and innovation.

The U15 also called for clear definitions of what constitutes an “arrangement” under the registry, questioning whether it would include research partnerships, funding agreements, and other academic activities conducted with international institutions. The potential broad scope of the registry could inadvertently harm Canada’s ability to engage in global research collaborations and access leading expertise.

Impact on Academic Freedom and Open Science

There are also significant concerns about how the registry might impact academic freedom. U15 Canada questioned whether activities such as publishing research findings, participating in academic conferences, or teaching would be considered communication activities under the law. Such requirements could severely limit the pursuit of open science and free exchange of ideas, fundamental principles of academic research.

Concerns from Universities Canada

Universities Canada, representing 96 universities nationwide, echoed these concerns in its submission. The organization pointed out that the transparency registry could inadvertently capture a wide range of communications, including social media posts and research publications related to political or governmental processes. This could stifle academic discourse and create unnecessary administrative burdens, duplicating existing transparency measures already in place for research publications.

Alternative Approaches and Expert Opinions

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) suggested that Canada’s approach to the registry should be reconsidered. CIGI highlighted issues experienced by Australia with a similar model and suggested that Canada might benefit from adopting a two-tier system like the one in the United Kingdom. This model allows for more precise restrictions targeted at specific countries or entities, offering a more balanced approach.

Benjamin Fung, a Canada Research Chair at McGill University, supported this two-tier approach in his brief to the Commons committee, arguing that it would enable the government to impose more targeted restrictions on selected entities.

Civil Liberties Concerns

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association also raised concerns about the vague and broad language of the bill. They warned that the registry could be used by the government to monitor the international engagement of various actors, including state-funded foreign broadcasters, academic institutions, and charities. This raises significant issues related to freedom of the press, privacy, and the role of international organizations within Canada.

As the committee continues its clause-by-clause review of the bill, these concerns from Canada’s academic and research communities highlight the need for careful consideration to ensure that the legislation protects national security without stifling innovation and academic freedom.