David Salvo is a senior fellow and managing director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Understanding the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) interference in Canadian elections – and deterring it from happening in the future – should be an issue that unites Canadian politicians of all parties. On May 9, I testified as a witness at a committee meeting in the House of Commons on this very topic and blanched at how this issue had already become politicized. Several MPs debated whether a CCP disinformation operation directly led to the defeat of former MP Kenny Chiu in 2021 and spent less time debating solutions to better safeguard Canadian democracy. Amidst this partisan rancour, MPs missed the point: The fact that these interference operations happen at all is unacceptable, regardless of whether they swing the vote in a particular riding.
The prolonged and politicized focus on whether a foreign interference campaign directly led to the victory or defeat of a particular candidate is the gift that keeps on giving to authoritarian regimes. As an American, I know that all too well. Six-and-a-half years after Russia’s widespread interference operation against the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Americans still have not wrestled with addressing all the vulnerabilities the Kremlin exploited. Why? Because politicians and the public spent years arguing over whether Donald Trump owed his victory to a foreign power rather than seeing the operation as the existential threat it was for American democracy.
When Russia began its interference campaign to denigrate Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and champion Mr. Trump in 2015, Kremlin operatives, like most everyone else, couldn’t have thought Mr. Trump would win. The bigger goal was to contribute to and inflame America’s polarization and pursue tactics that would lead to more Americans doubting the integrity of the electoral process.
It’s hard to argue that Russia’s operation hasn’t paid off. During a period that spans two very different presidential administrations, polarization among Americans is rising. Election denialism continues to plague trust in government and democracy. Russia did not create these problems for us, but the United States is more consumed by this domestic turmoil than fully addressing the vulnerabilities that made America susceptible to foreign interference in the first place.
Canada is proud to distinguish itself from its southern neighbour. On the issue of addressing foreign interference in Canadian democracy, it should avoid mirroring America’s politicization. Unfortunately, recent bickering over the appointment of a special rapporteur to investigate China’s interference in the 2021 election doesn’t help. The opposition has criticized the government’s refusal to launch a public inquiry, arguing, among other things, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not been transparent in sharing threat information surrounding CCP interference. True as that might be, a public inquiry could be used for political score-settling. As a middle ground, parliamentary meetings on the special rapporteur’s eventual findings could be an opportunity not simply to slam the government for its failings but to discuss how to deter future malign activity by China.
On the bright side, the government is moving forward with legislation that would establish a foreign-influence transparency registry, and that appears to have broad political and public support. There should be transparency when Canadians are working directly on behalf of the CCP and its proxies, for example. Many democracies, including the United States, maintain such a registry. It does not outlaw working on behalf of a foreign state actor per se, but it does provide sunlight to prevent obfuscating the nature of that relationship – which authoritarian actors exploit to attempt to influence policy decisions and voter opinions.
Another measure that ought to enjoy broad political support is the recent tabling of legislation to establish a beneficial ownership registry. This would unmask the hidden owners of companies, including shell companies and other financial cutouts that have enabled China, Russia and other authoritarian state-sponsored actors to move money into the Canadian political system. The United States, Britain and other democracies have suffered from the same financial infliction. Parliament should pass this legislation expeditiously.
Finally, whichever party is in power ought to continue to prioritize Canadian Heritage’s support for Canadian civil society. Canadian researchers, academics and citizen activists are, in many respects, leading the way in tracking malign foreign influence in Canadian politics and working with diaspora groups and other communities to raise awareness about the tactics authoritarian regimes use to target them. They are also working to reduce anti-Asian sentiments that have arisen during the pandemic and because of China’s interference in Canadian democracy. The Chinese-Canadian diaspora itself is often a target and victim of the CCP’s malign activity within Canada’s borders.
For years, Canada’s southern neighbour has been litigating and relitigating Russia’s long-standing interference operation. It’s a symptom of how polarized and unhealthy America’s democracy can be. Canadians should learn from our example and treat the question of China’s interference in Canadian elections as an issue that transcends political and ideological divides. Or they can learn from one of their own, former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart, who both expressed concern about possible Chinese interference in the race he lost to Ken Sim and dismissed speculation that the interference led directly to his ouster.
From the other side of the border, here’s hoping Canadians seize this moment to strengthen democratic resilience and institutional defences – not to fight among themselves.