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An independent public inquiry about … what, exactly?

The answer may seem obvious: Why, about “foreign interference” in Canadian elections, of course. That is how the issue is most commonly framed, though the allegations that have given rise to the demands for a public inquiry are not concerned with foreign interference in our elections generally, but interference by China, specifically, and in two elections in particular: 2019 and 2021.

Nevertheless, some would like to broaden its terms of reference to include other foreign powers, notably Russia, and to elections in general, past and future. A public inquiry is needed, it is said, to restore public confidence in the integrity of Canadian elections and to safeguard them from further interference.

But we don’t need a public inquiry to tell us that China, Russia or other foreign actors have been attempting to interfere with Canadian elections. There doesn’t seem to be much dispute that they have, and the evidence from the Canadian intelligence services seems overwhelming. That, indeed, is what the intelligence services are for.

Neither do we need a public inquiry to tell us that foreign interference has not succeeded in substantially altering the outcome of a Canadian election, to the point of deciding which party should govern. Again, there is no evidence to suggest it has, and no one is claiming that it has.

Finally, we do not need a public inquiry to tell us how we might go about defending our elections from further attempts at foreign interference. We do not ordinarily farm out the formation of public policy to retired judges. It is the job of the cabinet, assisted by the public service, and subject to amendment and scrutiny by Parliament.

We do not, then, need a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian elections. What we need a public inquiry to look into is domestic complicity in foreign interference.

An election in Canada is not something that is easily interfered with. You can’t just flip a switch or hack into a computer. Millions of paper ballots cast in secret and counted by hand in many different locations with multiple layers of scrutiny mean the opportunities for interfering with the actual vote are severely limited.

While disinformation campaigns have the potential to affect the result in individual ridings – no small matter – the evidence that they actually have done so is far from conclusive. However unwelcome, foreign-based disinformation is but an eddy in the tide of disinformation that floods any election campaign, much of it produced by the contestants.

The interference that should concern us is not something that happens to Canadian democracy, but rather the kind that happens with the collaboration of certain of its domestic participants. The collaboration may be passive – winking at or acquiescing in foreign interference, rather than taking action against it. Or it may be active: taking orders, or receiving benefits, from foreign actors.

In the present crisis, we have been given plenty of evidence of both, thanks to a series of extraordinary intelligence leaks. That is not why we are in a crisis, however. We are in a crisis because it took those leaks to bring the matter to light: because the Prime Minister and others in his party and his government, reportedly presented with much of the same intelligence, chose to do nothing about it, and to keep both the interference and their own inactivity a secret.

As early as June of 2017, the Prime Minister’s national security and intelligence adviser, Daniel Jean, drafted a “Memorandum for the Prime Minister,” copied to the clerk of the Privy Council, advising that Chinese agents were “assisting Canadian candidates running for political offices.” It said officials had documented evidence China was attempting to infiltrate “all levels of government.”

In 2019, three weeks before that year’s election, security officials reportedly gave an “urgent, classified briefing” to Liberal Party officials, “warning them that one of their candidates was part of a Chinese foreign interference network.” The candidate was allegedly Han Dong, a former member of the Ontario Legislature whom security officials had been monitoring due to his alleged close connections to the Chinese consulate in Toronto.

He was allegedly selected as the nominee in the Toronto riding of Don Valley North on the recommendation of Michael Chan, another former Ontario MPP and a key organizer and fundraiser for the federal Liberal Party; he is also under scrutiny by CSIS due to his own close ties to the consulate.

In February, 2020, a “daily foreign intelligence brief” distributed by the Privy Council Office alleged China had maintained an “active foreign interference network in the Greater Toronto Area,” involving “the Chinese consulate, local community leaders, Canadian politicians, and their staff.”

Titled “PRC Foreign Interference: 2019 Elections,” the memo described how China had targeted “at least 11″ candidates for support in the campaign. While “some are likely unaware of these influence efforts,” it said, “others have willingly cooperated.”

This report was fleshed out in a series of briefings and memos to the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers beginning early last year. These described how the consulate had clandestinely distributed large amounts of funds to the candidates’ campaigns – nine of them Liberal, two Conservative – through a series of intermediaries, as well as placing agents on the staff of MPs.

Other CSIS documents alleged China employed a similar operation during the 2021 election, aimed at electing Liberal MPs and preventing the election of some Conservatives. The tactics, The Globe and Mail reported, included making “undeclared cash donations to political campaigns” and recruiting international Chinese students through proxies to volunteer on electoral campaigns.

Moreover, a December, 2021, CSIS report alleged some campaigns had secretly rebated to donors the portion of their donation in excess of the amount covered by the federal tax credit on political contributions – which is, needless to say, illegal.

How much of all this was made known to the Prime Minister is uncertain. But it would be astonishing if he were not apprised of at least the broad outlines, on an issue of such importance, and with such explosive implications. The credibility of the allegations is likewise uncertain: Intelligence officers can get things wrong, or have their own agendas.

But intelligence officials at the highest level, including the Prime Minister’s own national security adviser, thought the information credible enough to present it to government – not just once, but on multiple occasions over several years. Whoever leaked the information also thought enough of its credibility, and importance, to risk imprisonment for leaking it to the press.

That is why we need a public inquiry – an independent public inquiry – to get to the bottom of this. It is not just that China’s interference activities were allegedly carried out with the help of domestic enablers. It is that, as the intelligence suggests, those domestic enablers were, overwhelmingly though not exclusively, prominent members of the governing party. The government cannot be entrusted to inquire into itself; Liberals cannot be left to investigate Liberals.

Yes, but couldn’t an inquiry also look at some of those broader systemic issues I mentioned? What’s the harm in that? But these are two separate questions. One is general and about policy: what China and other foreign actors have been trying to do to our elections, and whether our defences are adequate.

The other is specific and about accountability: which candidates allegedly benefited from China’s sponsorship; who else in the party knew about these allegations; what was the Prime Minister told, what did he do about it, and why has he refused to give a clear answer to legitimate questions about it to this day?

The policy questions are at least as important as the accountability questions. But they are not the same questions. A process geared to answering the first – an inquiry into the general question of how to protect our democracy from foreign interference – is not going to get answers to the second.

Indeed it is likely to prevent it. Which may be why the government and its supporters are trying to steer the discussion in that direction. Because the accountability questions are potentially profoundly disturbing.

It is significant that the Prime Minister appears to have taken no action in response to the intelligence reports: neither rooting out members of the alleged interference network from his party, nor expelling Chinese diplomatic personnel, nor instituting safeguards, such as a foreign agent registry, to prevent such outrages in future, nor even alerting the opposition candidates allegedly targeted by the Chinese disinformation campaigns.

But it is even more important to know why. Perhaps he did not believe the reports were credible. Very well: how did he know? Perhaps he was concerned about potential Chinese retaliation: This was a period, after all, that included the captivity of the two Michaels. Perhaps he had some other reason of state, good or bad, not to want to rock the boat.

But if the answer to the question “why wasn’t anything done about China’s electoral interference for the benefit of the Liberal Party” is that, well, it was for the benefit of the Liberal Party, that takes us down a very different path. It tells us why the Liberals might have been prepared to accept China’s help. It doesn’t tell us why China offered it.

We know, that is, that China preferred to see the Liberals in power. We don’t know why. We know they have been trying to cultivate Mr. Trudeau in particular for many years, notably via the donation of $200,000 through an intermediary to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. We don’t know what the return on their investment was.

No, it does not seem as if China has been able to affect the outcome of our elections. Probably it will not succeed in future, at least now that the alarm has been raised. But that is hardly the point. A bank robbery may not imperil the bank’s overall solvency, but it is still a bank robbery. The question is whether the robbers had inside help.

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