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Elections Canada Chief Electoral Officer Stephane Perrault enters the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions following a break on March 28, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The opening day of the second round of public hearings of the Foreign Interference Commission – and the first to get at the meat of the issue – was about as heart-rending as might be imagined.

Foreign interference, as we have been learning, takes many forms: not just the election meddling that was the proximate cause of the inquiry, but propaganda and disinformation, spying and – the subject of Wednesday’s hearing – intimidation.

Representatives of the various diaspora communities most affected – Chinese, Russian, Iranian, Indian – testified of the threats, violence and other coercive tactics to which they have been subjected by agents of their respective countries of origin, including threats against family members still there.

More to the point, they testified of the indifference and inaction that greeted them when they sought the protection of Canadian authorities: the police officers who told them there was nothing they could do, the political parties who refused to take up their cause, the governments that appeared to actively collude in their repression – from the City of Ottawa banning protests outside the Chinese embassy to the federal Immigration department granting residency permits to former high-ranking officials in the Iranian regime.

Indeed, the inquiry itself – so long delayed, so reluctantly conceded – was in danger of becoming a part of this depressing litany, after Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue granted full “party” standing to two political figures suspected of ties to the Chinese government, including the right to cross-examine witnesses, while confining the Conservative Party, identified in intelligence reports as one of the principal victims of Chinese interference, to “intervener” status. The damage was mitigated by subsequent decisions partially reversing these, but the commission will have a lingering trust deficit to overcome.

No doubt the inquiry will tell us more about the astonishing scope and scale of these foreign powers’ efforts to project their will in Canada. We’ve already learned a great deal from news reports: everything from Russian disinformation campaigns to China’s infiltration of a top-security infectious disease laboratory to India’s alleged involvement in the murder of a Sikh activist.

The commission, for its part, will have enough work on its hands just tracking, as its formal name describes it, Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, notably in the last two elections. Leaked intelligence reports have suggested China, in particular, took a hand in promoting candidates, mostly Liberal, considered friendly to Chinese interests, while spreading misinformation about candidates, mostly Conservative, considered hostile.

Most serious of all are reports that China succeeded in securing nominations for particular candidates, or in planting agents as staffers close to others. India, too, is alleged to have clandestinely provided funding, along with China, to a candidate in the last Conservative leadership race, through the bulk purchase of party memberships.

Canada is hardly alone in being a target of these efforts. Every day seems to turn up another example of Chinese infiltration or Russian disinformation or Indian intimidation campaigns in one Western country or another. The difference would appear to lie in the response. In other countries, arrests have been made, charges have been filed. In other countries, laws have been passed, such as the foreign agent registries that are now established parts of the counter-intelligence efforts of the United States, Australia and (soon) Britain.

In Canada, by contrast, the Trudeau government has only belatedly even acknowledged it as a problem. Perhaps it is too much to expect that we could spot every foreign spy or intercept every attempt to interfere in our elections. But we do seem to have left ourselves peculiarly open to such efforts. If the notorious incuriosity of Justin Trudeau and his ministers about Chinese interference is part of the problem, so is an institutional vulnerability that long predates them.

In no other democratic country, for example, are nomination and leadership races quite such free-for-alls as in Canada, so entirely lacking in regulatory supervision, so transparently purchasable – including by foreign actors. Couple that with the many safe ridings across much of the country – more than half of all federal ridings (182 to be exact) have returned an MP from the same party in at least six of the last seven elections – and it is easy to see how a foreign power might infiltrate Parliament. One stacked nomination meeting and you’re in.

That’s but one example of the many loopholes in our electoral laws and campaign finance regulations that might be exploited by hostile powers. The election integrity watchdog Democracy Watch has identified many others, along with suggesting a list of witnesses for the inquiry and the questions they might be asked.

To these add those basics: What’s the problem? How did it happen? What was done about it? Who knew what when? And why didn’t they do more?

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