O'Toole Says CSIS Told Him He Was Target of Beijing-Backed Voter Suppression, Misinformation Campaigns

O'Toole Says CSIS Told Him He Was Target of Beijing-Backed Voter Suppression, Misinformation Campaigns
Then-Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole rises during question period in the House of Commons on March 10, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Matthew Horwood

Former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole told the House of Commons on May 30 that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) informed him that he and his party were targeted by Beijing in a voter suppression and misinformation campaign during the 2021 federal election.

“The briefing from CSIS confirmed to me what I suspected for quite some time: that my parliamentary caucus and myself were the targets of a sophisticated misinformation and voter suppression campaign orchestrated by the People’s Republic of China before, and during, the 2021 general election,” he said while rising in the House on a question of privilege on May 30.

O‘Toole received a briefing from CSIS on May 26 regarding orchestrated efforts by Beijing to interfere with the Conservative Party’s results in the 2021 election. During the campaign, O’Toole promised to take a tough stance against the Chinese regime, including recognizing Beijing’s persecution of the Uyghur minority population in China’s Xinjiang region as genocide, and cracking down on foreign influence.

O'Toole outlined four categories of threats that CSIS said Beijing used to target him: foreign funding, human resources, foreign-controlled social media platforms, and voter suppression efforts.

“Each of these threats were intended to discredit me, promote false narratives about my policies, and to severely obstruct my work as a member of parliament and as leader of the Official Opposition,” he said.

O'Toole said that the Chinese Communist Party made payments to the United Front Work Department—which is used to carry out Beijing’s influence efforts abroad—to create “specific products of misinformation” that were spread on Chinese-language social media platform WeChat.

He said CSIS also informed him that an “active campaign of voter suppression” was used against him, the Conservative Party, and a candidate in one electoral district during the 2021 election. He did not provide details on the specific methods used.

O'Toole said that not only did the Liberal government and Canada’s security agencies fail to inform him of the foreign interference during the 2021 election, but the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force—formed in 2019 to monitor the threat from hostile state interference during elections—also failed to do so.

‘Chilling Effect’

O'Toole told the House he believed his privileges as a member of Parliament and leader of the opposition were breached by the “government’s reluctance to act upon the measure of intelligence relating to foreign interference.” Parliamentary privilege refers to the powers possessed by the House to “protect itself, its members and its procedures from undue interference so that they can carry out effectively their principal functions.”

He also said that since the ongoing campaign of foreign interference “critically” disrupted his work as leader of the Conservative party, the scale of the interference meant it violated the privilege of “hundreds of members of this house.”

The MP for Durham said the issue did not lie with Canada’s intelligence agencies but with the “willful blindness” of senior figures in the Liberal government.

“The government has gone from one smokescreen to another to deflect its responsibility for tackling the scourge of foreign interference,” he said.

O'Toole said the Chinese regime’s “ideal outcome” is for critics to “pull their punches and turn a blind eye,” which would create a “chilling effect on public policy and a chilling effect on parliamentary debate.”

“This novel and expanding situation of foreign interference in our politics, seeking to silence the debates of this Parliament, must be met and our parliamentary democracy must be defended. It is important for me to raise this issue before I finished my service in the house in the coming weeks,” he said.

Earlier this month, Conservative MP Michael Chong said CSIS confirmed a report that he and his family members in Hong Kong were targeted by Beijing due to his motion in the House to label the Uyghur persecution as genocide. On May 29, NDP MP Jenny Kwan also announced CSIS informed her last week she was an “evergreen” target of the Chinese regime due to her advocacy for Hong Kong and other human rights issues sensitive to Beijing.

Last week, special rapporteur David Johnston—who was tasked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with investigating public foreign interference—recommended against holding a public inquiry that opposition parties have repeatedly called for.