Alberta’s vote this spring will mark the first major provincial election after a series of news reports on intelligence that Beijing meddled in the most recent federal election. But recommendations that the province’s independent chief electoral officer made last year to bolster Alberta’s legal guards against the rapidly evolving challenge of disinformation, including from foreign actors, won’t be implemented in time for voting day on May 29.
Foreign interference hasn’t been a major concern in the province’s electoral process in the past. Becca Polak, a spokeswoman for Danielle Smith, said no issues have been brought to the Premier’s attention. Political parties using social media to battle among themselves is – at this moment – still probably a graver concern. A Global Affairs Canada report examining foreign interference in Alberta’s 2019 provincial election found evidence of co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour from social media accounts, but determined the majority of these accounts were likely not foreign.
But we should be paying attention. A big portion of Canadian governance takes place in the provinces and territories. And the question of whether they are prepared for a new world of borderless cyberthreats and other sophisticated tools employed by foreign governments should be considered in British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta and other provinces alongside fears about interference in federal elections.
The reports on interference in federal elections from The Globe and Mail and Global News have already intruded into provincial spheres. On Friday, a member of Ontario’s legislature, Vincent Ke, left the Progressive Conservative caucus after allegations in a Global News story that he was part of a Beijing-led effort to interfere with the 2019 federal election. Mr. Ke denies the report and says he will work to clear his name.
Except for Prince Edward Island, Alberta’s will be the next big election in Canada. In his December annual report, Alberta’s chief electoral officer noted weak spots in the province’s electoral laws, singling out the lack of power the province has to tackle misinformation and disinformation in election campaigns. Glen Resler noted that while federal election legislation has provisions related to foreign interference to fraudulently affect the outcome of an election, Alberta doesn’t have the same safeguards.
The report made a few specific recommendations to beef up Alberta’s Election Act, including specifically prohibiting any person or entity, including foreign persons and entities, from knowingly making false statements about the voting process – including voting and counting procedures – to disrupt the conduct of the election, or to undermine the legitimacy of the election or its results.
The annual report also noted how the province’s laws need to reflect the digital age. The Alberta law has a provision that allows the office of the chief electoral officer to remove non-compliant advertisements, including a physical sign. But it can’t compel social media platforms to remove content in a timely fashion.
The Globe’s reporting in recent weeks has focused on secret and top-secret Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents outlining how Chinese diplomats and their proxies backed the re-election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals – but only to another minority government – in 2021, and worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered to be unfriendly to Beijing.
The CSIS documents outline how China spread falsehoods on social media and provided undeclared cash donations in the 2021 election. The documents also outline how Beijing directed Chinese students studying in Canada to work as campaign volunteers, and illegally returned portions of donations so donors were not out of pocket after claiming a tax receipt.
In an e-mail this week, Elections Alberta spokesperson Cora-Lee Conway said any efforts that threaten to compromise the integrity of democratic processes are of great concern to Elections Alberta. She noted that the office is in regular contact with a local CSIS office and the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, the lead agency on federal response to cybersecurity events.
Alberta’s Justice Ministry indicated there won’t be any changes to Alberta’s Election Act coming before May, noting the legislative agenda for the rest of the legislature’s sitting is already laid out. Spokesperson Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney said the government is in the process of reviewing the chief electoral officer’s recommendations from December.
British Columbia and Ontario are provinces likely far away from elections. But B.C. is in the process of amending its laws to address online political campaigns and election advertising to match with current technologies. Recent reports from Elections BC have raised broad concerns about foreign interference, but the provincial attorney-general’s office says Elections BC has advised it that foreign interference has not been an issue in B.C. provincial elections.
In past years, Ontario’s chief electoral officer, Greg Essensa, has said it will be looking for cases of foreign interference. This week, Elections Ontario said in an e-mail it takes the integrity, security and accuracy of elections very seriously and works with security partners to monitor and review internal processes. In a response to a question about Mr. Ke, the office said it doesn’t comment on whether it has received a complaint or is investigating any matter.
There will be politicians and critics, whenever the topic of foreign interference in Canadian elections is raised, who say the very act of focusing on the issue will create distrust in the political processes we rely on.
But there is hope – to paraphrase a famous bit of Fitzgerald wisdom – that voters are able to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, and still hold onto a democracy’s ability to function. For instance, although there were efforts to meddle in the 2021 federal election, those efforts did not affect the outcome of the vote, says a report based on the work of a panel of senior public servants. And a new Leger poll released this week shows the majority of Canadians want Ottawa to call an independent inquiry into foreign interference in the past two federal elections, but still feel the country’s electoral system is safe.
Most voters still trust in our political processes. For that to continue, politicians and public institutions must also say that foreign interference is possible and real, and show they are intent on stopping it.