Public inquiry into foreign meddling in Canada’s elections drops its first report today

3 May 2024
Public inquiry into foreign meddling in Canada’s elections drops its first report today

Canadians could get a clearer sense today of the extent to which China and other countries meddled in the past two federal elections — and whether the government and security agencies did enough to share that information — when the public inquiry on foreign interference releases its first report.

The inquiry was triggered by media reports last year which, citing unnamed security sources and classified documents, accused China of interfering in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. Some of the reports also suggested members of the Liberal government were aware of certain attempts at interference and didn’t act.

Over 10 days of hearings in March and April, Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue heard hours of sometimes contradictory testimony about the breadth of foreign interference by countries like China, Russia and India in the past two elections and whether information was shared with the right people at the right times.


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Hogue and her staff also have heard classified testimony behind closed doors to help them reach their conclusions.

Documents are displayed on a screen behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he appears as a witness at the public inquiry in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Testimony and documents tabled at the inquiry have made it clear that foreign states have meddled in Canadian elections in the past.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada’s spy agency, has said it believes the Chinese government “clandestinely and deceptively” interfered in both the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, according to a 2023 document made public at the inquiry.

That briefing note says China’s interference was “pragmatic in nature and focused primarily in supporting those viewed to be either ‘pro [People’s Republic of China]’ or ‘neutral’ on issues of interest to the PRC government.”

Other CSIS documents tabled at the inquiry showed the governments of India and Pakistan also attempted to interfere in Canada’s federal elections in 2019 and 2021. In 2021, the government of India had “intent to interfere and likely conducted clandestine activities,” including through the use of an Indian government proxy agent in Canada, according to an unclassified summary from CSIS.

Both before and during the hearings, CSIS Director David Vigneault has said he doesn’t believe those efforts threatened the integrity of the election.

But other testimony suggested those attempts did have ripple effects.

Erin O’Toole appears as a witness at the public inquiry on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole testified that he believes his party lost five to nine seats because of a foreign misinformation campaign aimed at Conservative candidates in B.C. and Ontario, and at his party more generally.

O’Toole also told the commission he believes foreign interference may have contributed to his removal as party leader. In a document containing notes from an interview between O’Toole and inquiry lawyers, O’Toole is quoted as saying he was suspicious about the motives of the person behind the petition that called for a leadership review following the 2021 election.

Han Dong matter hashed out

One of the specific claims that was examined during the inquiry centred on alleged irregularities during the 2019 Don Valley North nomination contest. A media story reported that security officials told senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that then Liberal candidate Han Dong “was part of a Chinese foreign interference network” and that the party should “rescind Dong’s candidacy.”

The inquiry has seen intelligence summaries suggesting CSIS warned that international students were bused in to take part in the  nomination vote, were given fake documents to allow them to vote for Han Dong — who went on to win the Liberal nomination — and were told by Chinese officials that if they didn’t participate, their student visas would be in jeopardy and there could be consequences for their families back in China.

India, Pakistan attempted to interfere in Canada’s elections: CSIS

Dong left the Liberal caucus last year after Global News published a report alleging he advised a senior Chinese diplomat in February 2021 that Beijing should hold off on releasing two detained Canadians. He has denied allegations he’s been used as a witting tool of the PRC.

He did, however, tell the inquiry he recently remembered that he solicited support from high-school students with Chinese citizenship for his nomination in the Don Valley North riding contest.

MP Han Dong arrives to appear as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was briefed about concerns that CSIS had about Dong’s nomination contest. He said the evidence wasn’t sufficient to remove Dong as a candidate.

“I didn’t feel there was sufficient or sufficiently credible information that would justify this very significant step as to remove a candidate,” Trudeau testified before the inquiry.

The prime minister also said that due to national security concerns, his government was “limited on what we could actually rebut, regardless of the fact that there were inconsistencies, uncorroborated information in the leaks.”

CSIS Director David Vigneault returned to the public inquiry on foreign inference, defending the spy agency’s work after the prime minister told the inquiry he doesn’t always trust the intelligence shared with him.

“Why these leaks were of such deep concern was that we couldn’t actually correct the record without … sharing with adversaries some of the information or the methods that we use to keep Canadians safe,” he said.

During the public hearings, Hogue also heard criticism levelled at one of the measures the federal government put in place to ward off the types of threats that tainted the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit vote.

Nicknamed the “panel of five,” the team of top bureaucrats was tasked in 2019 and 2021 with monitoring foreign interference and issuing public warnings if they felt there was a threat to the integrity of the vote. No such warning was ever issued.

O’Toole suggested the panel should have issued public notices to voters warning them to be wary of information that they were obtaining from social media.

Johnston report said information flow needs to improve

The Liberals initially resisted calls from opposition parties for a public inquiry following the leak-based media stories. Its first move was to appoint former governor general David Johnston as special rapporteur on foreign interference to assess whether the Liberal government ignored threats or advice from national security agencies.

Johnston said he didn’t find evidence that Trudeau or his ministers knowingly ignored intelligence but concluded there needs to be a better flow of information between them. His May 2023 report disputed several Global News and Globe and Mail reports after reviewing associated intelligence in a broader context.

Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference David Johnston appears as a witness at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A few weeks after that report was released, Johnston — who had been accused of being unfit for the job because of his personal connections to Trudeau — stepped down, saying his role had become too tainted by political controversy for him to continue.

Friday’s report is one of two reports Hogue is required to deliver.

In September, the commission is expected to hold another round of hearings focused on Canada’s capacity to detect and deter foreign interference.

A final report is due at the end of the year.

Source: cbc

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