Former Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said foreign interference from Beijing’s communist regime cost his party seats in Canada’s 2021 federal election.
Speaking to CBC host Chris Hall on June 18, O’Toole was asked about an interview with Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith earlier this month in which O’Toole said the Conservative Party had lost about eight or nine seats in the election due to “foreign interference from China.”
When pressed for the source, O’Toole said the number came from his party’s internal review following the election, adding that “there were more ridings where the influence operations by Beijing played a role.” He also cited reports from Canada’s intelligence agencies, saying that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had warned his campaign team about foreign interference.
O’Toole said he had asked the intelligence agencies to inform the government of such threats, and that he believed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “was aware” of the issue, though “not of the degree of it.”
He pointed to a misinformation campaign launched through WeChat, a Beijing-controlled social media platform, which he said has roughly 600,000 users just in B.C.’s Lower Mainland alone. He also said about 2 million Canadians are “getting news through a site that is controlled through Beijing.”
“These are devices that now have more reach into some communities than the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,” he said. “Canadians need to be aware because this was meant to provide misinformation and to lead to voter suppression as much as it was telling people who to vote for.”
While the misinformation campaign wouldn’t change the overall outcome of the election, O’Toole said it could have “changed the results” in some ridings where candidates were neck and neck, such as in Richmond, Lower Mainland, and Tri-City in B.C., and in Markham and Richmond Hill in Ontario.
“More people are getting their news from WeChat—an algorithm controlled from Beijing—than this [CBC program] or regular journalism. And there was such a campaign against our party, against me, and it was impossible to counter it,” he said. “This is an area where I think we should have been more prepared.”
“We should be demanding a better defence against this interference in the next federal election.”
The former Tory leader said the Chinese communist regime targeted his party due to some of its policy agendas that would expose the authoritarian regime’s human rights abuses and misconduct, including a motion that declared Beijing’s abuse of the Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Province as an act of genocide.
A spokesperson for the Conservative Party of Canada told The Epoch Times that they have no comment regarding O’Toole’s remarks.
Targets of Misinformation
O’Toole said one possible target of China’s misinformation campaign was Kenny Chiu, the incumbent Conservative MP for B.C.’s Steveston–Richmond East riding who was seeking reelection.
Chiu was known for his pro-Chinese-democracy stance and has been an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party. With his private member’s bill, C-282, Chiu sought to increase a public registry that would compel those working on behalf of foreign governments to register as foreign agents.
While the bill didn’t mention China, it has been reported that Chiu was criticized on WeChat by members of the Chinese-speaking community after the introduction of the legislation. Chiu told The Epoch Times in a previous interview that the legislation was “deliberately” misrepresented as anti-Chinese and that it would bring harm to Chinese Canadians.
Marcus Kolga, senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and founder of DisinfoWatch.org, has also sounded the alarm about Beijing’s disinformation campaign during the election, including an anonymous article posted on WeChat that he said “falsely accused Chiu of seeking to ‘suppress the Chinese community.'”
“Such disinformation is intended to influence Chinese-speaking voters and could affect the election’s outcome,” Kolga said in an article published in September 2021.
“Such threats to the integrity of our elections must be considered by the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol and the social media platforms that have signed the Declaration on Election Integrity, yet allow foreign propagandists to amplify disinformation, should be held to account.”
Kolga pointed to an article published by communist China’s mouthpiece, Global Times, which discredited O’Toole and the Conservative Party’s platform. The article also threatened Canadians with a “counterstrike” if they elected a Conservative government.
The issue was also highlighted in a study released in March 2022, co-authored by several academic institutions, including the University of Toronto and McGill University.
The study noted that Chinese officials and state media had commented on the Canadian election with “an apparent aim to convince Canadians of Chinese origin to vote against the Conservative Party,” and misleading information and information critical of certain candidates was also circulated on Chinese-language social media platforms.
The study concluded that no evidence shows that “Chinese interference had a significant impact on the overall election,” saying that Canadians were generally able to detect false news stories.