ANALYSIS: Key Takeaways From the Foreign Interference Inquiry

ANALYSIS: Key Takeaways From the Foreign Interference Inquiry
Commissioner Justice Marie-Josée Hogue is seen during the second day of the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, in Ottawa, on Jan.30, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)
Noé Chartier

The foreign interference inquiry concluded its core public hearings phase on April 12 and a clearer picture has emerged of the threat Canada faces and what the government is doing about it.

The Liberal government had initially resisted holding the inquiry but eventually folded amid political pressure following a steady stream of intelligence leaks in the media about interference from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Inquiry proceedings have revealed that those leaks, first published by Global News and The Globe and Mail, were essentially accurate.

Leaks Confirmed

Summaries of government intelligence disclosed publicly at the inquiry align with what the outlets reported, albeit with the omission of details such as the names of protagonists.

Even information related to the the explosive Global News allegations about MP Han Dong was released.

Global reported in March 2023 about an intercepted 2021 conversation between Mr. Dong and the Chinese consul general in Toronto, Han Tao, saying he “privately advised” the diplomat that “Beijing should hold off freeing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.”

The “two Michaels” were being detained in China at the time in apparent retaliation of the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou in Canada based on a U.S. extradition request.

Mr. Dong left the Liberal caucus following Global’s report and sued the outlet for defamation, calling the allegations “absolutely untrue claims.” Mr. Dong, who now sits as an Independent, has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

An intelligence summary from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) entered as evidence at the inquiry is drawn from the conversation between Mr. Dong and Mr. Han.

“MP Dong expressed the view that even if the PRC released the ‘Two Michaels’ at that moment, opposition parties would view the PRC’s action as an affirmation of the effectiveness of a hardline Canadian approach to the PRC,” says the summary.

Mr. Dong testified at the inquiry the conversation “likely” took place and that the topic of the two Michaels had been discussed. Asked by the commission to validate what he would have told Mr. Han, Mr. Dong said “I don’t recall saying that exactly, but it’s possible.” The MP also said no Canadian would appreciate to have private conversations intercepted.

Mr. Dong was at the centre of another allegation, this time regarding irregularities in his nomination contest. The MP changed his inquiry testimony at the last minute to admit he was aware international Chinese students had been bused to his 2019 Liberal nomination contest for the Don Valley North riding.

A CSIS intelligence summary of the event says students were provided with fake ID to be able to vote through a “proxy agent” of the PRC, and that the Chinese Consulate issued veiled threats so the students would support Mr. Dong. The MP said he was not aware of these issues and he “would be the first one condemning it.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was made aware of the irregularities in the nomination contest but chose to keep Mr. Dong as a candidate. He testified at the inquiry there were uncertainties about the intelligence which didn’t “hit the necessarily very high threshold for overturning the result of a democratic event.”

No Public Warning

Canadians found out much later through the media leaks that Beijing probably interfered in elections.
This has now been confirmed at the inquiry, with evidence like a 2023 CSIS briefing to the prime minister saying “We know that the PRC clandestinely and deceptively interfered in both the 2019 and 2021 general elections.”

If this is now clear, authorities still knew very early there was likely interference happening. Members of the panel of bureaucrats in charge of notifying the public about election threats testified at the inquiry the panel was aware of intelligence during the 2019 election campaign that Beijing was providing funding to some candidates.

The panel, however, decided it didn’t meet the threshold to warn the public. Nathalie Drouin, who was a panel member in her capacity as deputy minister of justice at the time, told the inquiry she believed the Liberal Party being briefed on the Don Valley North riding would mitigate the risk.

“The fact that we can have some mitigation operations or action—that contributes to reduce the risk and reduce the impact,” said Ms. Drouin, who currently serves as the prime minister’s national security and intelligence adviser.

Despite issuing no warning at the time about the funding of candidates, the matter is currently under investigation by the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections.
The elections integrity mechanisms have assessed that foreign interference did not impact the outcome of the 2019 and 2021 elections.

Government Not Doing Enough: CSIS

Government officials who testified at the inquiry repeatedly said that intelligence is murky, full of uncertainties, and difficult to act upon.

But there was one foreign interference-related facet revealed at the inquiry that leaves no doubt at all: CSIS believes the government has been dragging its feet on countering the foreign interference threat.

Two sets of notes from the CSIS director to brief the prime minister in October 2022 and February 2023 that were partially released to the inquiry contain a sizeable amount of criticism levelled at the government. They show CSIS believes Canada is “slower” than its close intelligence allies to act against foreign interference (FI), and that Ottawa needs to change its approach.

“Better protecting Canadian democratic institutions against Fl will require a shift in the government’s perspective and a willingness to take decisive action and impose consequences on perpetrators,” said the February 2023 briefing.

The spy agency said state actors can successfully interfere in Canada because there are “few legal or political consequences.”

CSIS Director David Vigneault testified at the inquiry that he agrees with the content of the notes and that it accurately represents his agency’s viewpoint. He also confirmed having passed the message to the government, despite Mr. Trudeau and his advisers testifying this had not been conveyed during the two specific briefings in 2022 and 2023.
“I can say with confidence that this is something that has been conveyed to the government, to ministers, the prime minister, using these words and other types of words,” Mr. Vigneault said.

China the Primary Culprit

Even though all the security leaks in the media pertained to Chinese interference, the inquiry mandate was made broader to look at actions of other states.

There was much effort by groups opposed to the Kremlin to unearth evidence of Russian interference in elections, but to no avail. Every official testifying who was asked about the matter said interference by Russia was not detected in the 2019 and 2021 elections, and neither did it have the intent to do so.

“The Russian Federation continues to pose an FI threat to Canada, although it is likely not currently a significant foreign interference (FI) actor in relation to Canadian federal elections,” CSIS said in an intelligence summary released to the commission.

A former executive from Canada’s electronic spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment, also testified at the inquiry that it had not detected any intent by Russia to amplify certain election-related content.

“I think the strongest thing I can say is that we did not conclude that there [was] a broad foreign-based campaign to conduct that activity,” said Dan Rogers, who now serves as deputy national security and intelligence adviser. “Russia ha[s] the capability to do that. I think we were less certain on the intent.”

The Liberal government established an elections integrity mechanism after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with the intent to counter Russian interference.

“Certainly Russia was something that we were concerned about, which is why we created this whole infrastructure to protect our elections,” Karina Gould, leader of the government in the House of Commons, testified on April 10.

The infrastructure was aware of interference by Beijing, however, but it was kept under wraps.

A country profile of the PRC disclosed at the inquiry, mainly created by CSIS, says the resources spent by the Chinese regime on interference activities “exceed those of other states.”

Parties Not Told

One of the purposes of an elections integrity task force is to warn political parties if they are being targeted by election interference.

A July 2021 briefing from the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force prepared for cleared party representatives warned that China would be the “primary threat actor” in the upcoming election. It also says the PRC “may interfere in specific ridings.”

Representatives of all the major political parties testified at the inquiry that this information was never passed on to them.

“Any political party would have been alarmed by that statement,” said Walied Soliman, who co-ran the national campaign for the Conservatives and its leader at the time, Erin O'Toole.

Mr. O'Toole testified he believes his party lost up to nine ridings in 2021 due to Chinese interference.
The most familiar case involves the Chinese disinformation campaign against Tory candidate Kenny Chiu in B.C, who lost his riding. Mr. O'Toole was also targeted. CSIS has assessed that the circumstances “all suggest these effort were orchestrated or directed by the PRC,” according to a February 2023 briefing to the prime minister.
Mr. Trudeau told the inquiry he had not been made aware of those activities as they were being detected in 2021, and only learned about it through the media. Regarding Mr. O'Toole’s allegations, he responded by saying he “can understand where someone who lost an election is trying to look for reasons other than themselves why they might have lost an election.”

The prime minister also pushed back on intelligence suggesting Beijing has favoured his party.

“While individual [Chinese] officials may well have expressed a preference or another, ... it would just seem very improbable that the Chinese government itself would have a preference in the election,” he said.

The foreign interference commission, headed by Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue, is currently in the process of preparing an interim report due by May 3. The inquiry is expected to file its final report by year’s end.

Noé Chartier is a senior reporter with the Canadian edition of The Epoch Times. Twitter: @NChartierET