Canada Knows China Tried to Meddle in Its Elections, but What Should Come Next?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have hoped that this week’s independent review of China’s meddling in the last two Canadian federal elections would tamp down debate on the subject in Parliament. Instead, the report seemed to revitalize the opposition parties.
Here’s a short version of that report, which I wrote about when a redacted version was made public late Tuesday: There is evidence that China, Russia and Iran tried to subvert the 2019 and 2021 elections, but there is no evidence that their efforts “impacted” the results.
[Read: Foreign Efforts to Subvert Canada’s Last 2 Elections Failed, Report Says]
The federal government has long accepted that the Chinese government tried to sway those elections. And since November, a House of Commons committee has been looking into attempts by foreign governments to meddle in elections.
But the issue flared up on Feb. 17 when The Globe and Mail published an article it said was based on secret and top-secret reports prepared by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the agency most English-speaking Canadians know as CSIS.
According to the article, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party did not want a Conservative government to win the 2021 election because it feared it would take a hard-line approach to China. The Chinese leadership, however, wasn’t entirely happy with the Liberals, either, and wanted to hold them to a minority government. While that ultimately was the result, it’s difficult to see how any outside government could engineer such an outcome.
The documents, as reported by The Globe, laid out a variety of strategies, not all of them obviously feasible. China asked its diplomats in Canada to swing the vote in favor of the Liberal candidates in constituencies with large Chinese populations. And the documents the newspaper cited included boasts some of those diplomats conveyed back to Beijing that they had successfully defeated Conservative candidates, although there is nothing to back their claims.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, citing secrecy laws, has not addressed any of the specific allegations, but he has criticized the article and other reports for containing inaccuracies, without elaborating.
The Conservatives, who of course were the target, swiftly demanded a public inquiry, and Pierre Poilievre, their leader, charged that Mr. Trudeau was covering up China’s actions.
“He’s perfectly happy to let a foreign, authoritarian government interfere in our elections as long as they’re helping him,” Mr. Poilievre said at a news conference.
The New Democrats also joined the call for the inquiry, and on Thursday, the committee looking into election interference passed a motion, not binding on the government, from one of its members. It called for a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada’s democratic institutions and during Canadian elections.
On Friday, Mr. Trudeau again told reporters in Winnipeg that such a step would be unnecessary. He noted that a panel of senior public servants, who work with law enforcement and intelligence agencies during elections, found that no foreign government had managed to subvert the vote. In addition to the public hearings of the House of Commons committee, Mr. Trudeau said, a special committee of members of Parliament who meet in secret and have access to confidential intelligence was reviewing the issue.
Wesley Wark, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a former intelligence adviser to the federal government, told me that while more needed to be done about election subversion by foreign governments, an inquiry was not the way to go. It would, he said, most likely be conducted by a judge with little or no background in intelligence, would have little or no access to secret intelligence and would not issue its findings until after the next election.
Instead, Mr. Wark said, he wants both the government and CSIS to follow Australia’s lead when it comes to interference by China in Canada.
“The Australians are willing to to really talk about the threats very bluntly and provide, without getting into the very sensitive information, case-by-case examples of how these dangers are unfolding,” Mr. Wark told me.
By contrast, he said, it has been over a year since David Vigneault, the director of CSIS, has made a public speech, and the latest report on foreign interference in Canada from the intelligence agency is from 2021.
“It’s just not fulfilling what I think of as its responsibility as an authority on threats to the security of Canada to help educate Canadians about that,” Mr. Wark said.
More broadly, Mr. Wark faulted the government for, in his view, being “super reluctant” to expel diplomats who are interfering in Canada’s affairs, whether through disinformation campaigns, illegal campaign activities or threatening and intimidating nationals of their countries who now live in Canada.
That reluctance, he said, appears to come from a fear of retaliation. But he disagrees with allowing such concerns to hold back the response.
“Expulsions are a way of sending a message to the governments engaging in that kind of behavior, and also sending a message to Canadians that we’re on this and we’re not going to turn a blind eye,” Mr. Wark said. “Expulsions and more naming and shaming are very appropriate.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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