Charles Burton is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, non-resident senior fellow of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague, and a former diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Beijing.
Canadians in every corner of this country need to be alarmed by the latest evidence that China has criminally interfered with, and attempted to influence the results of, Canada’s last two federal elections in 2019 and 2021.
But perhaps equally concerning is the Canadian government’s languid response to these shocking reports – compiled by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), but revealed in The Globe and Mail – which detail an extensive scheme meant to corrupt our elections and determine which political party forms Canada’s federal government, as well as the kind of power the elected government would be allowed to wield.
Globe journalists viewed secret documents from Canada’s most senior security agency that alleged that Chinese diplomats in Canada have recruited or pressed proxies to smear candidates deemed critical of China and funded the campaigns of their rivals, in a program aimed at preventing the Conservative Party from winning elections in 2019 and 2021.
While the blockbuster reporting is startling in its access to credible and top-secret information sources, the fact is that Canada’s leaders have been told numerous times in recent years about China’s malign influence campaigns operating in this country – and have done little about it.
They were told as recently as Feb. 7, when David Mulroney, Canada’s former ambassador in Beijing, testified to the all-party Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee, which is studying alleged foreign election tampering in the campaigns of at least 11 candidates in the 2019 federal election who were both Liberal and Conservative. “Beijing’s tools include bribery, disinformation, collusion with criminal gangs and the ever-present threat of hostage-taking. It is increasingly sophisticated in its intimidation of elected officials who dare to speak the truth to Canadians,” said Mr. Mulroney. “Beijing’s objective is a degree of influence – in our democracy, our economy, our foreign policy and even in daily life in some of our communities – beyond the ambitions of any other country.”
I spoke to that same committee about China’s massive program of influence-peddling, disinformation and coercion to suppress all voices in Canada critical of Beijing. Last year I sent the same committee a list of 18 reports and journal articles containing authoritative data on how the manipulation works in Canada and abroad.
Given all this evidence, Canadians may well wonder what their government is doing to protect them from China’s schemes. Yet no serious action seems to have been taken by Canadian authorities: no court cases or RCMP investigations appear to have been launched, and no diplomats have been ejected. Indeed, the sheer size of Beijing’s diplomatic corps here should have long ago raised alarms. China has 146 envoys accredited in Canada, compared to 46 from Japan, 36 from India and 23 for the UK.
We also know the CSIS material has been shared with our Five Eyes global partners and other allied intelligence agencies, as well as among senior government officials; Global News has reported that CSIS briefed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on interference efforts in the 2019 election. But significantly, it doesn’t seem to have been transferred to the RCMP – the organization that would undertake an investigation, lay charges and advise the government about diplomats potentially engaging in these activities, which could be cause to send them back to Beijing.
This past weekend, however, Mr. Trudeau unequivocally stated that “the outcomes of the 2019 and the 2021 elections were determined by Canadians, and Canadians alone, at the voting booth.” This was an odd statement to make, however, since Canada is a secret-ballot democracy; we can’t tell exactly why people vote the way they vote, and so it seems impossible to actually know if Chinese influence was instrumental in certain political candidates losing their seats.
But we do know that a foreign regime is running a disinformation campaign to try to sabotage Canadian elections. And we know, from the CSIS report, that donors who contribute to Canadian political candidates favoured by Beijing have been quietly and illegally reimbursed for the portion not covered by a federal tax credit.
These sorts of activities, co-ordinated by a hostile power, absolutely should not be tolerated. The RCMP should have long ago been dispatched into action, but we have seen nothing.
The fact that someone inside CSIS was prepared to allow journalists to see classified documents suggests a split inside Ottawa, between a concerned security agency and a political centre that may be too fearful of economic retaliation by China to act. If this interference goes unchecked and there are no criminal or diplomatic consequences, though, it will obviously embolden China to do much more of it.