Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff told members of Parliament Friday that nothing is kept from the Prime Minister when it comes to national security and foreign interference, but Katie Telford offered little insight into when he was first apprised of meddling by Beijing in Canadian politics.
She also had no comment during her testimony to the House of Commons procedure and House affairs committee when asked whether she was briefed on what the Conservative Party framed Friday as a new allegation of foreign interference.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper told the committee Friday of a strange communication from the Chinese consulate in Toronto received by former Conservative MP Bob Saroya before the 2021 election. He was defeated in that vote.
Mr. Cooper said that 10 weeks before the 2021 ballot, Mr. Saroya received a “cryptic and threatening text message” from Beijing’s consul-general in Toronto suggesting he would not longer be a member of Parliament after the 2021 vote. Mr. Saroya, the former MP for Markham-Unionville, was one of a number of incumbent Conservative MPs in ridings with significant Chinese-Canadian voters who lost their seat in that race.
Disinformation experts have documented a significant effort against the Conservatives on Chinese-language social media during the 2021 campaign over former MP Kenny Chiu’s proposal for a foreign-agent registry – a measure Mr. Trudeau’s government is now seriously considering.
Ms. Telford repeatedly said she could not speak to the Saroya case. “I can’t speak to that information,” she said. “I cant get into confirming, let alone denying information and going beyond the bounds of the [testimony] of security heads who were here before me.”
The Globe and Mail reached Mr. Saroya by phone Friday and he confirmed the story but declined further comment.
Ms. Telford declined to comment on the contents of any security intelligence briefings during her testimony.
She was adamant, however, that national-security intelligence is not concealed from the Prime Minister.
“There is nothing that is ever kept from the Prime Minister,” Ms. Telford told the committee, in response to a question from Bloc Québécois MP Marie-Hélène Gaudreau. “Certainly not by me.”
Ms. Telford has been the Prime Minister’s chief of staff since the Liberals took office in 2015 and attends most national-security briefings, and would know how the Prime Minister responded to warnings from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about Chinese state meddling in Canadian politics.
However, she cited national security in response to numerous questions about what the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was told – and when it was told – about Chinese government interference. “Unfortunately, I can’t provide information about what I have or have not been briefed on,” Ms. Telford said.
Ms. Telford’s appearance Friday is the result of a concerted push by opposition parties, which have strongly criticized the Prime Minister’s response to a series of reports in The Globe based on secret and top-secret CSIS documents detailing election meddling from Beijing and its proxies. In response to their calls to immediately strike a public inquiry, Mr. Trudeau instead appointed former governor-general David Johnston to advise him on whether he should launch one.
Mr. Trudeau has also asked two closed-door panels, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), to study China’s interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections. The results of their work will be reviewed by Mr. Johnston. He will have until May 23 to make a recommendation on whether to call a public inquiry.
After the committee hearing, Bloc MP Christine Normandin said Ms. Telford’s testimony confirmed for the first time that Mr. Trudeau has been regularly kept up to date on attempts at foreign meddling.
“We now know that nothing was hidden from him,” Ms. Normandin told reporters.
She said whether the Prime Minister was fully briefed on the issue was previously unclear and noted that in the past, the PMO has not provided all information to Mr. Trudeau. For example, he wasn’t briefed on a sexual-misconduct allegation against Canada’s former top soldier, Jonathan Vance.
Ms. Normandin said a public inquiry is still required to shed light on foreign-interference attempts that were shared with the Prime Minister but “not managed properly.”
Conservative MP Michael Barrett accused Ms. Telford of using national-security protections as an excuse to avoid answering questions. “It’s a continuation by the Liberals to hide the truth from Canadians, about what they knew about foreign interference by Beijing into our democratic process,” he said to reporters.
During her testimony, Ms. Telford was asked by Mr. Barrett about former Liberal MP Han Dong’s exit from caucus last month. Mr. Dong left the caucus and is sitting as an independent while he sues Global News for reporting that he says is defamatory and incorrect.
The story centres on a conversation Mr. Dong had with China’s top diplomat in Toronto. The Globe has previously reported that the Trudeau government determined there was no “actionable evidence” after it received a CSIS transcript of the early 2021 conversation.
Ms. Telford told the committee Friday that she was never involved in any conversation about whether Mr. Dong should be removed as a candidate for the 2021 fall election.
'I don’t want to presume on what the special rapporteur is going to recommend,' said Katie Telford to a question about what David Johnston may recommend after reviewing information on foreign election interference. Ms. Telford, the prime minister’s chief of staff, appeared before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee on April 14.