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The flag of the People's Republic of China flies at the Embassy of China in Ottawa, on Nov. 22, 2019.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Looking back, we should have known. No, strike that, we knew; everybody knew. However much China might have liberalized its economy, whatever material gains it might have made, it was always clear that the Communist Party of China was the same brutal gang of thugs it always was. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 because Mikhail Gorbachev would not approve shooting the protesters. That same year, at Tiananmen Square, China went in another direction.

And yet, after a relatively brief interval, Western investment and Western trade with China resumed as before. Canada was among the earliest and most eager of China’s suitors. Only a few years after Tiananmen, newly elected Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien led the first Team Canada mission to China: all those minivans stuffed with premiers and chief executives, falling over themselves to flatter their Chinese hosts, hoping to get the jump on their Western competitors.

For there was money to be made, and besides, wasn’t China the rising power in the world? Wasn’t it just shrewd statesmanship to get onside with the regime? After all, it wasn’t as if we had put aside all concern for human rights.

A guide to foreign interference and China’s suspected influence in Canada

Rather, we told ourselves, with trade and investment would come, sooner or later, freedom. It wasn’t we who had sold out to China; rather, over time they would become more like us: not just more capitalist, but more liberal, more democratic.

It wasn’t a crazy idea. I bought it. But after Xi Jinping became President in 2013; after China launched the Belt and Road Initiative, extending its influence around the world; after it laid claim to virtually all of the South China Sea; after it became clear it had no intention of living up to the terms of the 1984 handover agreement in Hong Kong; as the threats to invade Taiwan became louder and more insistent; and as the campaign of repression against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang intensified, it became harder and harder to sustain the illusion.

By the time Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came to power in 2015, it was evident that the “democratization through trade” strategy had failed: No longer just a bestial dictatorship at home, China had become an increasingly aggressive power abroad, bent on exporting its model where it could and imposing its will where it could not.

Chinese corporations like Huawei and CNOOC were enlisted in the campaign. So was the Chinese diaspora, over whom Beijing asserts authority and whom it expects to toe the regime line. So were China’s efforts to surveil, suborn and intimidate Western political leaders, including Canada’s.

And yet our courtship, if anything, grew more ardent. Under Mr. Trudeau, Canada tilted hard toward China at the very moment it was tilting even further away from the West. The talk through the first years of the Trudeau government was of a historic opening to China: a free-trade agreement, maybe even an extradition treaty. The Prime Minister attended private fundraising dinners in the company of Chinese billionaires. Fervent Sinophiles, first John McCallum, later Dominic Barton, were appointed as ambassadors to Beijing.

It was only in late 2018, after the regime-ordered detention of two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, in retaliation for Canada’s decision to extradite Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to the United States, that the affair began to cool. But even then, there were voices urging a speedy return to normalcy. Pity about the kidnapping. Now, where were we?

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Former governor general David Johnston appears before a Commons committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 6, 2018.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

All of this is to say, with regard to the matters David Johnston has been asked to advise the Prime Minister on, there is a context. After all this, few could claim to be genuinely surprised by what has emerged over the past few months of reporting by The Globe and Mail and Global News, even if it was based on top-secret intelligence.

What was shocking was rather the scale and scope of it: a broad, deep and unrelenting campaign of interference in Canada’s political, economic and social life, going back years; an onslaught of bribes, threats and disinformation aimed at every level of government; the attempted capture of a country, a class and especially of a party.

Or rather, what was shocking was how little response any of it seemed to have provoked in official Ottawa. Consider each of the allegations in turn:

The disinformation campaigns against certain Conservative candidates. Intelligence reports detailing China’s use of social media and community proxies to spread disinformation about some Conservative candidates – allegedly part of a broader strategy to ensure that the Liberals were re-elected in 2021 – were reportedly shared with senior government officials, as well as with Canada’s intelligence partners.

Yet neither the Conservatives nor the public at large were given any warning of this. The Conservatives, to be sure, had their own suspicions, but when they took these to the agency responsible, the Security and Intelligence Threat to Elections (SITE) task force, they say they got no response.

Support for other candidates, mostly Liberals. As far back as 2017, the office of the National Security and Intelligence Adviser (NSIA), which reports to the Prime Minister, was warning that Beijing was targeting Canadian politicians for influence operations.

A February, 2020, memo prepared by the Privy Council Office (PCO), which also reports to the Prime Minister, described a Chinese-sponsored “interference network” of at least 11 federal candidates in the 2019 election, almost all Liberal, plus 13 or more staffers: some of them witting participants, some unwitting. The support allegedly took the form of under-the-table funds provided through a series of proxies, as well as campaign workers recruited from among the international Chinese student community.

According to a January, 2022, PCO memo, a Conservative member of the Ontario legislature was also allegedly involved in the network, as an intermediary. Another intelligence report alleges Chinese involvement in the past Vancouver municipal election, grooming candidates for city council and intervening on behalf of a candidate in the race for mayor.

Would any of this have come out had it not been for the willingness of intelligence sources to risk jail time to make it public knowledge? Would anything have been done about it? Doubtful.

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Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Michael Chan waves following a swearing-in ceremony at Queen's Park in Toronto on Feb. 11, 2013.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The Michael Chan affair. A former minister in the Ontario Liberal governments of Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne, now deputy mayor of Markham, Ont., Mr. Chan is a major fundraiser and influential figure in Liberal circles. He has also been under Canadian Security Intelligence Service surveillance for many years, allegedly over his links to officials in the Chinese consulate. (Mr. Chan denies any wrongdoing.)

Mostly, The Globe reported, quoting a national-security source, that CSIS sought a warrant under Section 21 of the CSIS Act with regard to Mr. Chan in early 2021, allowing it to intercept his electronic communications and bug his home, car and office. The warrant was approved by lawyers for CSIS and the Justice Department, as well as CSIS director David Vigneault, but was allegedly held up for four months by then-public safety minister Bill Blair. (Mr. Blair has issued a statement saying “no warrant application ever took as long as four months to approve.”)

The attempted intimidation of Conservative MP Michael Chong. The Globe reported earlier this month, quoting an intelligence assessment dated July, 2021, that Chinese officials had been gathering information about family members of Mr. Chong, a prominent critic of the regime, in an effort to “make an example” of him.

The campaign was allegedly directed by an official in China’s Toronto consulate, Zhao Wei. Though Mr. Zhao was subsequently expelled from Canada, Mr. Chong was apoplectic that no on had thought to inform him of the threat to his family in the nearly two years since the report was prepared.

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Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills Michael Chong speaks to reporters before appearing as a witness at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) regarding foreign election interference, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on May 16.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

As with previous reports, the Prime Minister insisted he had not seen the intelligence assessment, asserting CSIS had failed to pass it on. Yet Mr. Chong was informed by the Prime Minister’s current National Security and Intelligence Adviser, Jody Thomas, that the report had in fact been provided to one of her predecessors. Still, none of her predecessors could recall having seen it. And the Prime Minister claimed not to have been told what Ms. Thomas was told, days after the matter had come to light. This is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a clown car.

Of course, Mr. Chong and the other MPs are only the latest alleged victims of Chinese intimidation campaigns. Chinese Canadians have been complaining of similar, or worse, tactics by the regime for years, with no apparent response. The issue was recently highlighted by reporting on China’s installation of several “police stations,” in Canada and other countries, as bases for its operations against dissenters.

The Trudeau Foundation mess. After one of Mr. Trudeau’s fundraising dinners with Chinese businessmen, it was announced that two of them would donate $200,000 to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, an organization in which friends and family of the late prime minister loom large (a first cousin once removed of mine is a former board member) but which was nevertheless the recipient of $125-million in public funds.

As The Globe reported earlier this year, the donation was in fact indirectly funded by the Chinese government, in hopes of buying influence with the younger Mr. Trudeau. It later reported that the foundation had falsely identified the donors on the tax receipts, apparently at the request of an organization affiliated with the Chinese state – activities that, once discovered, prompted most of the current board and executive to resign.

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Chair of the Board of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Edward Johnson appears as a witness at a standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 9.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

And these are just the highlights. The picture that emerges is not just of extensive and apparently successful efforts on the part of China to penetrate Canadian politics and government, but of the critical enabling role played by the Trudeau government. At the least it seems to have somehow remained entirely unaware of a series of ever-more-alarming reports, coming not only from CSIS but from the PCO and NSIA.

(The same apparently applied to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, a creation of the current government which, like PCO and NSIA, reports directly to the Prime Minister. It complained in a recent report that no action had been taken on any of its recommendations.)

Worse has been its performance after the reports started leaking: an endless series of deflections, non-denial denials and flat-out stonewalling (days of filibustering, for example, at the Commons ethics committee in an ultimately fruitless effort to prevent the Prime Minister’s chief of staff from having to testify) that gave every evidence of a government with something to hide.

Compounding this has been the tone deafness of its belated attempts to show the public it was getting to the bottom of things. Did the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol (CEIPP), the body tasked with warning the public about attempts to interfere with Canadian elections but which chose not to do so, do its job? Let’s get the former chief executive of the Trudeau Foundation, the person who approved the Chinese donation, to look into it.

And who should we get to look into the whole mess, in which we are so deeply implicated? Why, David Johnston, of course – a lifelong family friend, previous political appointee, with an extensive personal and professional commitment to closer Canada-China ties and a member of the Trudeau Foundation to boot? Either these people do not understand the principle of conflict of interest (as I’ve said before, the rule is not “avoid conflicts unless you are a highly credentialed former Governor-General,” it’s “avoid conflicts”) or they don’t care.

One consequence of Mr. Johnston’s conflicted position is that, on the question to be addressed in this preliminary report (a broader report is to follow this fall), whether to call a public inquiry, he can give only one answer. Were he to recommend against it, even if he thought it was a bad idea, the cries of “cover-up” would ring from here to Beijing.

But if we are to have a public inquiry, it’s important that it be done right, taking account of an inquiry’s particular strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, it should not cast its net too narrowly – to focus only on explicit interference in federal elections, say, rather than the broader pattern of interference in Canadian politics, or indeed Canada. On the other hand, its scope should not be so broad as to lose sight of the most immediate and pressing threat to our national security, which is China.

If Mr. Johnston recommends an inquiry into all sources of foreign interference – Russia, Iran, the works – we’ll know he has lost the plot. The same holds if the inquiry is turned into a history assignment, looking at Chinese interference through the ages, about which much is already known, rather than under this government, about which much is not.

The point is to focus on the particular purposes to which a public inquiry is best suited. We don’t need a public inquiry to tell us how China is attempting to interfere in our politics: that’s what the intelligence services are for. Neither do we need an inquiry to frame a response: That’s the job of cabinet, and its advisers in the civil service.

What a public inquiry, with all of its legal powers and all of its legal safeguards, is good at is telling us what went on inside the government – the sorts of questions we would never get answered without its power to compel the production of government documents and the testimony of government witnesses. Questions such as:

  • Intelligence reports say that China wanted to help the Liberals get re-elected. Why?
  • Were the intelligence reports broadly correct in their assessments: that is, was China attempting to interfere, in the ways described?
  • Who knew what when? Is it conceivable that not one of these multiple reports over several years could have reached a minister’s desk, the Prime Minister’s in particular? What about their advisers?
  • If so, what does that say about how we are governed, if critical intelligence on a pressing matter of national security never reaches the final decision-makers? But if not, then why would they lie about it?
  • And the ultimate question, assuming somebody knew: Why was nothing done about any of it? Was it incompetence? Negligence? Or was a deliberate choice made to look the other way – perhaps out of embarrassment at having been played by the Chinese regime, an inability to admit that they bet the farm on China, and lost? Worse, was it because, as Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has suggested, the Liberals benefited from it? Or worse yet, was it out of fear of what might come out: potentially, that certain Liberals had been compromised?

The only honest answer to any of these questions at this point is: I don’t know. But they are questions that cannot be left hanging, and a public inquiry is our best and only shot at getting them answered.