Feds Never Warned Party Reps Beijing Was Targeting Specific Ridings, Inquiry Hears

Feds Never Warned Party Reps Beijing Was Targeting Specific Ridings, Inquiry Hears
Azam Ishmael (L) and Anne McGrath appear as witnesses at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, in Ottawa on April 2, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
Noé Chartier

Representatives of major political parties security-cleared to receive sensitive information about election interference in Canada’s 2021 federal election say they never received a briefing warning that the Chinese regime was working to target specific ridings.

“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) will be the primary threat actor in an upcoming federal election,” wrote the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force in a July 2021 briefing prepared for cleared party representatives. The task force convenes during elections and draws its members from departments and agencies that have security mandates.

The document was presented to the representatives from the Liberal Party, Conservative Party, and NDP who were testifying before the foreign interference inquiry at its hearing on April 2.

“Due to tensions in the bi-lateral relationship and PRC activity directed against Canada’s Parliament and certain MPs, the PRC may interfere in specific ridings to either support those viewed to be ‘Pro-PRC’, or oppose those viewed to be ‘anti-PRC’,” says the briefing marked “Secret for Canadian Eyes Only.”

All of the party representatives said they had not seen this information before when asked by commission counsel Kate McGrann whether it was consistent with what they had received from the SITE Task Force.

“I don’t believe we saw this document,” said Liberal national campaign director Azam Ishmael.

“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. Soliman added had they known about Beijing’s intent, they could have developed strategies to “at least institutionalize the monitoring of this.”

NDP’s former national director Anne McGrath said the information in the July 2021 briefing was “more specific than anything that I recall receiving.”

Earlier during the hearing, the commission counsel had asked the party reps to describe their interactions with the SITE Task Force.

The reps all said the information they were provided with was run-of-the-mill, despite the fact that they had Secret security clearance.

“My overall sense was that I really didn’t learn anything in the briefings that I didn’t regularly read in The New York Times or The Globe and Mail or Toronto Star,” Mr. Soliman said. “I often wondered why I went through such an extensive security clearance to listen to the briefings.”

‘Lack of Respect for the Process’

Following the 2021 federal election, the Conservative Party, suspecting that foul play had taken place in multiple ridings, brought allegations to the SITE Task Force.

A Privy Council Office (PCO) document from March 2023 summarizing those concerns was presented to Mr. Soliman during the hearing.

It says the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) raised suspicions that an “‘outside actor’ in the Chinese community negatively influenced the CPC Candidates’ performance in 13 electoral ridings.”

Mr. Soliman took issue with several aspects of the PCO memo, saying that at that point the party had not made any assertion that foreign interference was involved.

He also took offence at the memo saying the CPC was unhappy with the elections outcome. “That’s ludicrous. It’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said.

Mr. Soliman had not read the PCO memo until the hearing. He said it had reaffirmed his opinion about the SITE process, noting that the task force never followed up on the allegations brought forward by the Tories.

“I felt that there was a lack of intentionality, a lack of seriousness, and a lack of respect for the process that all of our parties are involved in,” he said.

The public inquiry is currently in the second phase of hearings, with a focus on interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. In the next phase, it will examine how the federal government has been handling the threat of foreign interference.