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opinion

When an investigation by The Guardian pulled back the curtains on the winning campaign in the Brexit referendum, the newspaper made a somewhat shocking discovery: evidence of foreign intrusion.

It was revealed that factions behind the Leave campaign were using the services of analytics firms based offshore: AggregateIQ in Victoria, and another in the United States, Cambridge Analytica, a company owned by U.S. billionaire Robert Mercer, one of the men who bankrolled Donald Trump's campaign for the U.S. presidency.

The microtargeting strategies used by the Leave forces were highly effective and almost certainly swung the vote in their favour. But what has some concerned are indications that perhaps not everything about the involvement of the foreign entities was above board. There have been accusations that money was channelled through third parties to circumvent spending rules. The matter is now the subject of an investigation by the country's Electoral Commission.

Read more: Political donations in Canada: A guide to the 'wild west' vs. the rest

It may ultimately be a probe that offers more questions than answers. Problems include the fact that current laws don't prevent overseas individuals or governments from using social media to influence British elections – just print advertising. Beyond that, the proof needed to establish a firm finding of collusion or rule-breaking lies offshore, beyond the jurisdiction of British authorities.

We mention this because governments and electoral authorities in Canada are facing similar questions about the impact foreign groups could be having on elections here.

Elections Canada has received more than 100 complaints about the parts played by third parties in the 2015 federal election campaign. A percentage concerns the role that U.S.-based environmental activist foundations such as Tides might have had in it.

A number of parties out in force during the campaign – the Dogwood Initiative, Leadnow, and Greenpeace among them – receive funding from the U.S. advocacy group. In some cases, that money appears to make up a substantial amount of their annual revenue.

When it came to the federal election, not all of these not-for-profits focused on the same issue. For some, it was pipelines. For others, it was, ironically enough, campaign-finance reform. But whether you agree or disagree with the issues these groups were fighting for is beside the point.

There are federal rules that are supposed to prohibit third-party campaign organizations from using foreign contributions on federal election advertising within six months from when an election campaign begins. For their part, Canadian non-profits have consistently rejected charges they are in violation of electoral laws.

Former Conservative MP Joan Crockatt is among those who have filed a complaint with Elections Canada. She asserts that nearly $2-million in foreign money went to third-party groups in Canada that were active during the 2015 campaign.

Vivian Krause, a B.C.-based independent researcher and writer who has investigated the role U.S.-based foundations play in the financing of Canadian environmental groups claiming charitable status, has submitted a 200-plus page complaint with Elections Canada on the same subject.

"There is big U.S. money coming into Canada camouflaging as little money," Ms. Krause said. "It's one message, a hundred messengers, through various organizations. Small is the new big. It's actually pretty shrewd warfare.

"But Canadian elections should be fought using Canadian resources. Tides has Canadianized its money through Tides Canada, but that's just cosmetics. They are breaking the spirit of the law here, in my opinion."

Elections Canada is taking Ms. Krause's complaint seriously and has already interviewed her. Investigators want to speak with her again next month.

This is not just a concern federally, but at the provincial level, as well. British Columbia, for instance, has no rules governing the role foreign groups can play in electoral politics. Overseas business interests donated heavily to the BC Liberal Party in recent years. Tides-backed environmental groups fought hard for their issues in the recent provincial election.

The new NDP government has promised to bring in sweeping campaign-finance reform. That legislation will almost certainly ban foreign donations, but whether that will affect groups being funded by U.S. foundations remains to be seen.

This has become a big issue elsewhere, as well. In Australia, there is pressure on the government to ban all foreign donations, an edict that could cover not-for-profit groups that receive offshore money and that are engaged in political activity.

That foreign actors should be prevented from meddling in the electoral affairs of another nation is a given. But as Brexit and the U.S. election have demonstrated, it is likely happening far more than we suspect, in ways we can't imagine.