Two former advisers to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as well as the leader of the New Democrats, say that a non-partisan public inquiry into Chinese state-directed interference into the 2019 and 2021 federal elections is warranted.
However, Ward Elcock, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said he doesn’t back such an inquiry because national-security restrictions would mean that important testimony would have to be conducted in secret and many of the details and evidence could never be revealed to Canadians.
“Most of those hearings are not going to be in public,” Mr. Elcock said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Sunday.
But Richard Fadden, another former CSIS director, who was national-security adviser to Mr. Trudeau, told The Globe on Saturday that an inquiry would provide an “objective” examination to determine how extensive China’s interference operations have been.
“I believe that a public inquiry is necessary because of the importance of the issues raised in the sense that few issues more directly affect our sovereignty than having another state interfere with our democratic process,” Mr. Fadden said.
Gerald Butts, who was Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary until he resigned during the SNC-Lavalin affair in 2019, said Sunday that he too thinks a non-partisan inquiry is necessary, to look at the broad spectrum of foreign interference and not just China’s activities.
“The radical changes in geopolitics and technological advancements of the past several years mean we’re in a different, more dangerous world where many foreign actors have an interest in harming democratic institutions and the capacity to do it,” he told The Globe. “We should be confident in our democratic institutions, but we should guard them aggressively.”
New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh said he is troubled by reports from The Globe and Global News, citing highly classified CSIS documents, outlining the extent of Chinese interference operations in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
“The way to stop alleged secret Chinese interference is to refuse to keep their secrets for them. A fully independent and non-partisan public inquiry is the way to shine a light into the shadows,” Mr. Singh said in a statement provided to The Globe on Sunday.
“I share people’s disappointment in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s shifting and casual responses to these incredibly serious allegations. What he knew, when he knew it and how he responded matters,” he said.
Mr. Trudeau ruled out a public inquiry on Friday, as requested by former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley.
Mr. Kingsley said an independent inquiry is necessary because Beijing-directed interference operations in leaked secret and top-secret CSIS reports, which were viewed by The Globe, threaten to undermine confidence in the electoral system. He said Canadians must be able to “trust that the electoral process is not being tampered with by a foreign government.”
Mr. Trudeau said he was satisfied with the examination of Chinese interference operations now being conducted by the Commons committee on procedure and House affairs, but Mr. Fadden said its work will be hampered because of partisanship and lack of access to secret intelligence reports.
“The issue is so important that it needs to be looked at in an objective way. While a parliamentary review might be useful, it is so partisan that it puts into doubt its ability to come to an objective set of conclusions,” Mr. Fadden said.
Mr. Fadden, who also served as national-security adviser to Stephen Harper, said a judge should be appointed to head an inquiry and be given access to all unredacted intelligence, as well as subpoena powers to call cabinet ministers and senior officials.
He said that could even include calling the Prime Minister to testify on what he knew about China’s activities: “This is a democracy and nobody should be immune,” he said.
Mr. Elcock, however, predicted that the government would likely be reluctant to divulge details to the inquiry that touch on sensitive counterintelligence investigations. He said that, as a result, the public would have to take the inquiry’s findings on trust.
He said the matter should be referred to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, a body that has clearance to examine national-security documents.
He did, however, support the establishment of a registry of foreign agents to track those who are being paid or otherwise remunerated for working in Canada on behalf of other governments, including China.
Mr. Elcock said that as things stand now, Canada should be responding to reports of foreign interference by taking action. One option, he said, would be expelling a Chinese diplomat.
Mr. Butts said he is also supportive of a foreign-agent registry, which is already in place in Australia and the United States. The Trudeau government has been studying the idea since February, 2021.
Conservatives on the procedure and House affairs committee have complained that the Liberals and NDP blocked a motion on Tuesday to call Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford. The motion by Conservative MP Michael Cooper would also have allowed the Commons Law Clerk, who has a security clearance, to review all the classified CSIS reports and redact information that could be injurious to national security.
“If the committee process is going to work, it is imperative that the government produce the documents and the redactions be independent,” Mr. Cooper said.
CSIS reports outline how China backed the re-election of the Trudeau Liberals and worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered to be unfriendly to Beijing.
But those documents show that Beijing did not want the Liberals to win a majority. One Chinese diplomat was quoted as saying in July, 2021 – eight weeks before the September election – that China “likes it when the parties in Parliament are fighting with each other.”
CSIS reports in 2021 said the Chinese state is targeting all levels of government from municipal to provincial to federal. They said China is targeting political staffers because “staffers control schedules and often act as gatekeepers” for MPs, “thereby placing them in positions where they can deceptively control and influence the activities of elected officials in ways that support [People’s Republic of China] interests.”
The Globe reported that the CSIS documents show how China spread falsehoods on social media and provided undeclared cash donations in the 2021 election. The documents also lay out how Beijing directed Chinese students studying in Canada to work as campaign volunteers, and illegally returned portions of donations so donors were not out of pocket after claiming a tax receipt.
A Feb. 18, 2020, CSIS intelligence report assessed that at least 11 candidates in the 2019 election were the target of foreign interference. It said the 11, along with 13 members of their staffs, had direct connections to a “known or suspected malign actor.” The report says these candidates had at least one direct connection to a person of interest in CSIS’s investigation of Chinese foreign interference.
Meanwhile, the Privy Council Office said the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel, an independent group of senior civil servants set up in 2019 to assess and analyze foreign election interference, will soon publicly release its report into the 2021 election.
The Prime Minister’s Office has already seen the report. PMO press secretary Ann-Clara Vaillancourt told The Globe last week that the panel concluded that “while foreign interference attempts absolutely existed, the 2019 and 2021 elections unfolded with integrity.”