Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly confirmed Thursday that Canada denied a diplomatic visa request from a Chinese political operative last fall due to concerns about foreign interference — and said she wouldn't hesitate to expel diplomats for the same reason.

"I've instructed my department to never shy away from denying a visa if it's a political operative linked to the Communist Party of China," Joly said to the procedure and House affairs committee, which is studying alleged foreign election interference in the 2019 and 2021 general elections.

"It is the right thing to do."

Facing a barrage of questions from opposition members of Parliament, Joly laid out the tools the Canadian government is using to combat foreign interference in response to questions about recent allegations of Chinese meddling.

She told MPs that it's easier to keep people from engaging in foreign interference by blocking them from coming into the country, rather than monitoring them when they are already in Canada.

But she said diplomats operating in Canada can also be expelled if there is evidence under the Vienna Convention — a United Nations code governing international diplomacy — that they engaged in interference.

"If we have any form of clear evidence of wrongdoing, we'll send diplomats packing very, very, very quickly," she said.

Amid criticism from Conservative MPs over the fact that Canada has not expelled any such actors, Joly said her political opponents are looking for an "easy fix" that would prompt the retaliatory expulsion of Canadian diplomats from China and could endanger Canadians who live overseas.

Joly said Canadian diplomats were crucial to bringing home Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in September 2021 after they were detained by China for more than 1,000 days.

Canada will expel Chinese diplomats if there is evidence of wrongdoing: @melaniejoly. #CDNPoli #ForeignInterference

"More than ever, we need capacity. We need eyes and ears on the ground. We need to be able to address national interests we have in our bilateral relationship. And I'm extremely concerned about the protections of Canadians abroad," the minister said.

"We need to engage to protect these people. It's something that keeps me up at night, and that's why we have capacity in Beijing."

Joly echoed comments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is facing intense scrutiny over the issue of foreign interference and has responded by accusing Conservatives of politicizing national security.

"When you fall into too much partisanship, we're falling into China's trap," she said.

Tensions between federal parties rose throughout the week, with Liberals devoting several meetings to an extended filibuster as the government faced rising pressure.

On Thursday, during an intense bout of questioning, Conservative MP Michael Cooper quipped to Joly: "You've talked tough with your Beijing counterpart, so you say. You even stared into his eyes. I'm sure he was very intimidated."

Several MPs on the committee accused him of being inappropriate, with Liberal MP Jennifer O'Connell calling the comments "demeaning." After the meeting, NDP MP Rachel Blaney told reporters it was outright "sexist." Cooper did not apologize during the committee hearing.

In a statement, Cooper said his comments "had nothing to do with the minister's gender and everything to do with the lack of action by her and her government to hold the regime in Beijing accountable."

During a separate meeting Thursday of the Senate foreign affairs committee, former Conservative foreign minister John Baird said the Liberals face a greater challenge with China than Stephen Harper's government did.

"China has changed demonstrably in recent years," Baird said. "Obviously, the policies that they have been pursuing have been demonstrably more of a challenge."

He noted that the Harper government "got off to a bit of a rough relationship with China" but was able to find some grounds for working with Beijing.

Baird said the Trudeau government had made things more challenging for itself before the detention of Spavor and Kovrig.

He cited an abrupt change in Canada's approach to trade negotiations, which saw the Liberal government more aggressively asserting progressive values; the 2018 decision to bar a Chinese takeover of construction firm Aecon on national security grounds; and language in the new Canada-United States-Mexico free trade deal that effectively freezes out the option for a trade deal with China.

"This is not new, though, for Canada. Some days people are better friends and allies, and that can change very quickly, as it has over the decades," Baird said.

The federal effort to address foreign interference has ramped up after Trudeau announced new measures earlier this week.

In a statement, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians said it will examine the state of foreign interference in Canada's democratic processes since 2018.

That will continue the work done in its previous review of the government's response to foreign interference, which covered the period from 2015 to 2018.

It will also consider the independent report by former public servant Morris Rosenberg on the federal protocol for monitoring foreign interference attempts during the last general election.

Chaired by Liberal MP David McGuinty, the committee plans to consult other review bodies to avoid duplication as it develops its terms of reference for the latest review.

“Foreign interference and influence have been identified as significant threats to the rights and freedoms of Canadians and Canadian society," McGuinty said in the statement.

"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."

Earlier this week, Trudeau urged the national security committee and another spy watchdog, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, to look into foreign interference in light of recent concerns about possible Chinese meddling in the last two federal elections.

The government also plans to appoint an "eminent Canadian" with a broad mandate on the issue. The independent rapporteur will be responsible for informing the work of NSIRA and NSICOP and any other existing processes and investigations that may be carried out by bodies like Canada’s Commissioner of Elections.

The rapporteur will make public recommendations, which could include a formal inquiry or some other independent review process, and the government said it will abide by the guidance.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Wednesday at a briefing that China always opposes interference in other countries’ internal affairs.

"We have no interest in and will not interfere in Canada’s internal affairs," she said. "It’s absurd that some in Canada are making an issue about China based on disinformation and lies."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2023.

— With files from Dylan Robertson.

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