Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa, on April 3.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

We are partway through the mandate of the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, a.k.a. the Foreign Interference Commission, which is to say we are all the way through the only part that matters.

The commission is supposed to report by May 3 – two weeks from now – on the first part of its mandate: to “examine and assess interference by China, Russia and other foreign states” in the 2019 and 2021 elections, and “the flow of information to senior decision-makers, including elected officials” and “actions taken in response.” In other words: what went wrong, who knew and what did they do about it?

The commission’s final report, due by the end of the year, is supposed to assess more systemic issues surrounding how government agencies should best “detect, deter and counter” foreign interference. But these are not questions for which a public inquiry is the necessary, or even appropriate forum. They are the sorts of broad policy questions we elect governments, with the support of the civil service, to tackle.

The point of a public inquiry, and the formidable powers of investigation that go with it, is to delve into the sorts of things that governments would rather were not delved into: the critical failures, mistakes and omissions, including by current elected officials, that might have given rise to the situation being investigated.

That was never likely under the pseudo-inquiry conducted by “special rapporteur” and Trudeau family friend David Johnston, which was why it was established and why it failed. It remains to be seen how much further the current inquiry gets, given the limits placed on even its access to sensitive documents.

What can be said, however, after three weeks of hearings, is how much it has succeeded in establishing already. Recall the state of play before the inquiry.

In spite of a series of reports in The Globe and Mail and other media, drawing on scores of leaked intelligence documents and interviews with confidential intelligence sources, detailing how China, in particular, had attempted to interfere in the past two elections – how it had run misinformation campaigns against certain candidates, particularly Conservatives, it considered unfriendly; how it had channelled funding to others, mostly Liberals, it considered friendly; how it had conspired to secure a nomination for at least one candidate in a safe Liberal riding, Han Dong, who went on to be elected; how it had attempted to intimidate a senior Conservative MP, Michael Chong; and how, despite the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s repeated attempts to raise the alarm with senior government officials, up to and including the Prime Minister, nothing had been done about it, not even so much as informing the purported victims of the interference campaign – it was still possible to pretend, if you tried very hard, that this was all a lot of fuss over nothing.

Who were these confidential sources, anyway? Were those documents accurately quoted, and in context? Besides, “intelligence is not evidence”: the documents could have been based, all of them, on hearsay and rumour. Maybe the leakers had political motives. Maybe there was other intelligence, not yet disclosed, that was exculpatory.

It is rather more difficult to play this sort of game now. We shall have to see, of course, what the commissioner, Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, says in her report. But nothing that has come out of the inquiry to date has materially challenged any of what was contained in the CSIS documents, or how it was reported.

Mr. Dong’s appearance, in particular, did nothing to advance his case that he was an innocent victim of circumstance. There was his surprising admission, in testimony before the inquiry, that he had met with and solicited the votes of a group of Chinese foreign students who were later bused into the nomination meeting, a fact he had neglected to mention until then. He said a conversation with his wife had jogged his memory.

There was, too, his response to evidence that he had advised Chinese officials, in a conversation taped by CSIS, that an immediate release of the “two Michaels” would be seen as “an affirmation of the effectiveness of a hardline Canadian approach” as advocated by the Conservative opposition. It was not, as you might expect, “I never said that,” but “I don’t remember” saying that.

Mr. Dong’s memory failings perhaps explain why he has yet to be admitted back into the Liberal caucus, from which he exiled himself last year while he pursued his efforts to clear his name. But as efforts in self-incrimination they pale in comparison with the testimony of a parade of Liberal officials and cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister.

It has always been a mystery how, in the face of this hail of memos from intelligence officials, some at the very highest levels, warning of China’s attempts to interfere, senior Liberals, inside government and out, could have remained so oblivious – or having been alerted, could have failed to act.

Their testimony before the inquiry only accentuates the implausibility of the story. At every turn, Liberal officials’ responses were either we didn’t see the memo, or it was not reflected in oral briefings, or in the face of evidence they received both, well, what does CSIS know anyway?

The Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, testified that on a previous occasion she had asked that a particularly incriminating CSIS memo be revisited, based on her own intuition that it must be mistaken. Much to her delight, the agency obliged the very next day.

Intelligence agencies can of course get things wrong. And governments are not automatically obliged to accept their assessment. But can it really be acceptable that a government official can not just disregard an intelligence memo, but send it back for review, without any checks or safeguards?

More worrying still was the aftermath of CSIS’s briefing of party officials on the Han Dong matter. The briefing, carried out during the 2019 election campaign, was classified, restricted to a small number of officials with security clearance. Yet, as a senior national-security official told The Globe last week, a party member tipped off Mr. Dong days later that CSIS had their eye on him.

Then there was the testimony of the Prime Minister. Much attention has been paid to Justin Trudeau’s peculiarly vehement insistence that he seldom reads the briefing materials put in front of him. While “he reads them when he can,” as a summary of Mr. Trudeau’s prehearing interview put it, in other cases “he trusts that someone else … will tell him if there is something he needs to know.” Or as he said in his public appearance, “the only way to guarantee, to make sure, that I receive the necessary information is to give me an in-person briefing.”

This appears to conflict with testimony offered by Ms. Telford before a parliamentary committee a year ago, that “of course the Prime Minister reads any documents he receives.” But it is far from the only contradiction or anomaly in his testimony.

Mr. Trudeau testified that, while he was briefed by the party’s national campaign manager, Jeremy Broadhurst (now a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office) on the Han Dong affair, he did not feel “there was sufficient or sufficiently credible information that would justify this very significant step as to remove a candidate in these circumstances.” Mr. Broadhurst, for his part, testified that he “recommended that no action should be taken,” because “I thought the bar for overturning that … that bar should be extremely high.”

Oh please. This “very significant step”? If only. Political parties drop candidates all the time, and with far less justification – because they posted something untoward on their Facebook page when they were 12, let alone because they are suspected of being the protégés of a hostile foreign power. This sudden respect for the sanctity of the local nomination process would be a lot easier to credit if there were any – if the races were not often rigged by party HQ to favour one candidate or another, when they are not pre-empted altogether.

Indeed, Mr. Trudeau at another point smirked at CSIS’s naiveté about the Canadian political process: nomination meetings, he said in a prehearing interview, are stacked with busloads of supporters for one candidate or another all the time. That may be true, but they are not usually under the direction of a foreign power – told, as the inquiry also heard, that their families back home would face “consequences” if they did not show up.

So the Liberals, and Mr. Trudeau in particular, are left with many more questions to answer after their testimony than before. Their insistence, in particular, that briefing notes prepared by CSIS for the Prime Minister’s Office, stating that Beijing had “clandestinely and deceptively interfered in both the 2019 and 2021 general elections,” that “state actors are able to conduct [foreign interference] successfully in Canada because there are no consequences, either legal or political,” and that “until [foreign interference] is viewed as an existential threat to Canadian democracy and governments forcefully and actively respond, these threats will persist,” was not reflected in what CSIS director David Vigneault personally briefed them, hangs by the slenderest of threads.

Recalled to the witness stand, Mr. Vigneault testified he might not have used those exact words in his oral briefings, but only because he had been telling them much the same thing for years. “I can say with confidence that this is something that has been conveyed to the government, to ministers, the Prime Minister, using these words and other types of words,” he said.

The question is why no one was listening. Or why, if they were, they stopped up their ears.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the Prime Minister's chief of staff, Katie Telford, testified she sent a CSIS memo back for review.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe