As a Russian spy saga unfolds, Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Dick Fadden says there's reason to worry foreigners are posing as Canadians to engage in espionage - partly because the maple leaf passport is so useful.
"I think it's something that we should be concerned about," Fadden told a Commons committee Monday.
"It's happened over the years, and the Canadian federal government and Canadian provinces have made it more and more difficult for such individuals to acquire Canadian identities, but it is still possible."
Several people - including three claiming to be Canadian - have been charged by American authorities with being deep-cover Russian spies in the United States.
A fourth suspect allegedly from Canada, Christopher Metsos, disappeared last week after a judge granted him bail in Cyprus. He was reportedly carrying a Canadian passport.
The arrests were the culmination of a long-term probe of a network of purported agents of the SVR, the foreign intelligence arm of the Russian Federation. The agents' job, according to FBI papers filed in court, was "to search and develop ties in policy-making circles" in the United States.
The Canadian government has said little about the case, but Passport Canada is investigating possible abuse of travel documents.
Fadden said it's no accident the Canadian passport is prized among spies.
"I think one of the reasons that Canada's so attractive is that we're so well-viewed around the world, and our passports are accepted virtually anywhere, so there is a level of concern."
In 2006, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service revealed an alleged Russian spy using the alias Paul William Hampel relied on a phoney Ontario birth certificate to successfully obtain passports on three occasions.
Fadden said Monday that the U.S. likely gets "more attention than we do" from foreign spies.
"But we take a lot of decisions and we have a lot of information that we share with the Americans and a vast number of other countries. So Canada is of considerable interest."
Fadden was on the hot seat over his recent candid remarks about foreign operatives trying to influence Canadian politicians. He said the case emerging in the U.S. echoed his concerns about foreign interference in Canada.
"In this particular case it appears that the agents of Russia were insinuating themselves into the U.S. economy and U.S. society with the long-term view ... of being able to either acquire information or exercise influence."
Wesley Wark, an intelligence expert with the University of Toronto, rejected Fadden's attempt to link the sensational U.S. case with allegations of foreign influence in Canada.
"These weren't agents of influence in the United States. These were classic agents that the SVR was trying to develop to collect intelligence on various kinds of specific topics in the United States," Wark said Monday.
"We muddy the affair by making any kind of comparison between the two."