OTTAWA (Reuters) - In startling comments that appeared to surprise the government, Canada's spy agency says it suspects that cabinet ministers in two Canadian provinces are under the control of foreign nations.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) also said some countries, including China and countries in the Middle East, were playing a long-term strategy that involves trying to recruit people in Canadian universities.
The unprecedented remarks by CSIS Director Richard Fadden were broadcast late on Tuesday, a day before Chinese Premier Hu Jintao was due to arrive in Canada on a formal visit.
CSIS regularly complains about foreign espionage but this was the first time the agency has openly alleged that domestic politicians have come under the sway of outsiders.
"There are several municipal politicians in British Columbia, and in at least two provinces there are ministers of the Crown who we think are under at least the general influence of a foreign government," Fadden said in a recent speech that was filmed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Pressed by the CBC as to what he meant, Fadden said the individuals in question -- whom he did not identify -- had no idea they were being used.
"They haven't really hidden their association but what surprised us is that it's been so extensive over the years and we're now seeing, in a couple of cases, indications that they are in fact shifting their public policies as a reflection of that involvement in that particular country," he said.
Fadden, speaking generally, said some nations took a "very, very long range view of their efforts to influence Canada" and used people from their own diaspora. Canada is one of the few western countries still encouraging major immigration.
Asked whether he was speaking about China, Fadden referred to recent media stories about Chinese spying in Canada.
"I wouldn't say that those stories were entirely incorrect and the country you mentioned is, I believe, mentioned in those stories," he said.
The office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which is trying to boost its ties with China, said it did not know what Fadden was talking about.
"We have no knowledge of these matters. CSIS directs its own operations," said chief Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas.
British Columbia, on the Pacific Coast, has seen a steady surge of immigrants from China and Hong Kong in the last three decades. It one of the more powerful of Canada's 10 provinces.
Professor Wesley Wark, a leading intelligence specialist at the University of Toronto, said Fadden's comments risked harming the reputation of the spy agency.
"CSIS should not be out front on that story before some kind of policy decision is taken ... what is extraordinary about the allegations is the notion that foreign intelligence services are running agents of influence," he told Reuters.
"I don't think that in the history of Canada there has ever been a verified agent of influence."
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway