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This much Canadians can be sure of: The overall result of the 2021 election was not determined by Chinese interference. Even in the absence of attempts by Chinese-government agents to influence some voters, the election would have yielded a Liberal minority government and the Conservatives would have lost seats in ridings with large Chinese-Canadian populations.

That is cold comfort, however, in light of leaked intelligence reports detailing persistent Chinese efforts to circumvent Canadian electoral laws and sway voters in selected ridings, who were the targets of disinformation campaigns aimed at discrediting Conservative candidates. The term “free and fair election” was less applicable in these ridings than in others.

Yet, the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol (CEIPP) panel charged with reviewing instances of potential foreign interference in the 2021 election did not judge evidence of foreign meddling significant enough to warrant alerting the public to China’s activities during the campaign. The five-member panel, led by then-interim clerk of the privy council Janice Charette, ultimately decided that the threshold for making a public announcement had not been met.

In doing so, it weighed a number of factors, including whether making such an announcement could have been seen as providing an unfair advantage to one particular political party over another. That sounds like an excuse for not acting. It should not have mattered whether foreign interference could have altered the result of the vote; what mattered was that foreign interference was occurring and voters in ridings where it occurred should have been alerted to it.

“Were Conservative losses in several ridings with large Chinese diaspora communities due to attacks on the Conservative platform and on one of its candidates by media associated with or sympathetic to the Chinese government?” Morris Rosenberg asks in his report on how the CEIPP functioned during the 2021 election. “Or were they the result of the Conservatives simply not being able to connect with sufficient numbers of voters in those communities?”

In asking those questions, Mr. Rosenberg identifies the flaw in the 2019 cabinet directive that created the CEIPP. That directive states that, “ultimately, it is the impact of the incident on Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election that is at issue in the determination of whether the threshold has been met, and if a public announcement is required.”

It can be hard enough to measure the impact of foreign interference in a single riding once the votes are counted; it is even harder to determine its impact before voters go to the polls. This flaw in the directive was also flagged by James Judd in his CEIPP assessment of the 2019 election. He found that the “threshold within the protocol for any action by the panel did not easily lend itself to the application of quantifiable metrics upon which to arrive at any decision.”

Another weakness in the protocol for alerting the public to foreign interference stems from the rule requiring the panel to operate on a consensus basis. This means all five members of the panel – which also includes the national security adviser to the prime minister and the deputy ministers of justice, public safety and foreign affairs – must agree that the threshold has been met for a public announcement. But Mr. Rosenberg noted that two panel members were out of country during the 2021 campaign. “It should be clear that during the [campaign] period, attending the panel is the overarching priority for all panel members,” he wrote.

The report by Mr. Rosenberg, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs who served under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper between 2010 and 2013, also warns that “strategies to counter foreign interference need to guard against marginalizing diaspora communities” in Canada. But the CEIPP panel should not allow the risk of offending the sensibilities of some ethnic voters, or provoking a backlash against certain ethnic groups, to inhibit them from raising a red flag when foreign interference occurs.

Chinese-Canadian voters were the biggest victims of China’s interference in the 2021 election. They were the target of misinformation posted on social media and on the website of a Chinese-language newspaper sympathetic to Beijing. Rather than feeding anti-Asian racism, a public announcement during the 2021 election campaign would have exposed Chinese interference and encouraged Chinese-Canadian voters to turn to more trustworthy sources of information.

The integrity of our elections would be even better protected if Canadian politicians refrained from engaging in diaspora politics in the first place. Their tendency to court voters in some ethnic communities by exploiting political divisions within their countries of origin or pitting ethnic groups against one another is an open invitation to foreign interferers and undermines Canada’s national security interests.

Most of all, Canadians need to have an honest conversation about foreign interference that does not degenerate into a partisan slugfest and leads to changes in the way the CEIPP operates. And it needs to happen before the next election.