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Erin O'Toole returns from a break to continue appearing as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on April 3.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole told Canada’s foreign-interference inquiry his party was targeted by a deluge of misinformation orchestrated by China and its proxies that led to the defeat of up to nine candidates in the 2021 election.

The Foreign Interference Commission heard Wednesday from Mr. O’Toole, two sitting MPs and a defeated parliamentarian who said senior government officials responsible for the integrity of the 2021 election campaign failed to share intelligence on Beijing’s meddling.

In testimony before the inquiry, Mr. O’Toole stressed that he does not believe that Chinese interference changed the outcome of the vote that produced a Liberal minority.

But he said voters in certain ridings were affected by this meddling and government officials in charge of election integrity knew about it but never issued a warning to the public or the political parties.

Erin O'Toole writes: I met with David Johnston for his report – here’s what happened

Commission counsel showed Mr. O’Toole documents from the Security and Intelligence Threats Election Task Force, known as SITE and comprised of senior civil servants, that outlined Beijing-directed efforts to spread disinformation against the Conservatives over the party’s hawkish campaign platform against China.

“We were not informed of that,” he said.

Even when his campaign raised the disinformation campaign with SITE, it was played down, he said. “Clearly, they knew some of the instances we were reporting were actually occurring but that was never confirmed to us in the campaign or after.”

A Sept. 13 SITE document noted that WeChat, the Chinese-language, social-media app, was sharing the narrative that Mr. O’Toole “almost wants to break diplomatic relations” and some Chinese media commentary stated that “Chinese Canadians are scared of the Conservative platform.”

“These issues were always downplayed when we raised them with SITE,” Mr. O’Toole said.

He said he would have liked to see SITE issue a public warning and he had even thought about doing it himself, but feared it would be used as an anti-China wedge issue in the campaign.

“We now know that there was evidence of misinformation but there was no notice, no warning given,” he said. “A notice would have been useful to people who were being targeted because these sites with algorithms controlled by foreign governments, those are the people who are vulnerable and at risk.”

Explainer: What to expect from the public inquiry into foreign interference and how we got here

A document tabled with the inquiry showed that in the week before the 2021 election, a unit with the Department of Global Affairs assigned to detect foreign state-sponsored disinformation, observed “what may be a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) information operation that aims to discourage Canadians of Chinese heritage from voting for the Conservative Party of Canada.” There is no indication that Mr. O’Toole was informed of this.

Mr. O’Toole said he made the seat-projection losses based on Conservative Party modelling that showed his party should have won about 127 seats but ended up with 119. The party lost the vote largely on the issue of vaccine mandates, he said, but argued that foreign interference cost them between five to nine seats, “where we had large numbers of people not voting.”

“For people in those seats, if they were undergoing intimidation or suppression measures, their democratic rights were trampled on by foreign actors. Certainly it was serious,” he said. “I think a lot of people didn’t vote because they were intimidated.”

Mr. O’Toole said he believed the party was targeted by Beijing because of its platform, which called for a foreign-agent registry, a ban on Huawei Technologies in domestic telecoms, withdrawal from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and included criticism of Chinese repression of Muslim Uyghurs and support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.

In the aftermath of the election, SITE produced a document in December, 2021, that said the “People’s Republic of China sought to clandestinely and deceptively influence Canada’s 2021 election.” The same document talked about social-media attacks on Mr. O’Toole and former Vancouver-area MP Kenny Chiu, who was defeated in that campaign.

Mr. O’Toole said none of the information was shared with him even after the party provided SITE with detailed accounts of what it alleged were foreign-influence operations in 13 ridings.

“These conclusions so quickly after the election show that some people within intelligence and in government knew what we were raising were valid and real issues,” he said.

Mr. O’Toole said it was only last year when The Globe and Mail published articles, based on classified Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents and national-security officials, that he became aware of the extent of Chinese intervention in the 2021 campaign.

After The Globe revealed last May that Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong was targeted by China in the 2021 election, CSIS informed Mr. O’Toole and NDP MP Jenny Kwan that they also had been part of the Chinese interference operations.

The former leader said the election results probably led to his ouster as Conservative Party leader. Had he won 127 seats, he probably could have survived, but having won two fewer seats than predecessor Andrew Scheer doomed him, he said.

Mr. Chong told the inquiry CSIS never told him he was being targeted by China during the 2021 election campaign. The spy service only told him after The Globe reported in May that a Chinese diplomat had been gathering information on him and his family in Hong Kong. The Chinese diplomat, Zhao Wei, was expelled after The Globe’s report.

Mr. Chong said he believed China was upset with him for two motions that Parliament passed: one calling for the Huawei ban and another declaring that Beijing was committing genocide against its Muslim Uyghur minority.

“I never knew at that juncture nor did I during the last election that I was actually clandestinely, corrosively and corruptly being targeted by the government of the PRC here on Canadian soil,” he said. “Had I known I would have gone on high alert during that election.”

Ms. Kwan told the inquiry that after she criticized Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, she noticed a “seismic shift” in her relationship with what she called the “big five” Chinese community groups in Vancouver. She was not invited to cultural events in her riding and community leaders began to shun her.

“What was glaringly obvious was that I myself, as a Chinese Canadian who is in the riding, was not invited” to events, she said. She testified that she believed it was the result of the Chinese consulate’s attempt to punish her outspokenness.

Ms. Kwan said many of her constituents “have this fear in their hearts” when they speak to her, worrying that the Chinese consulate and their proxies would punish them or their families if they support the Vancouver East MP. She told the inquiry that during the 2021 election campaign, constituents, donors and supporters told her they were fearful about voting for her because she had previously protested in front of the Chinese consulate.

Ms. Kwan also recounted her complaint to Canada’s election watchdog about what she describes as a free lunch by community leader Fred Kwok in support of her Liberal opponent during the 2021 campaign. Mr. Kwok used WeChat to offer free food to anyone who came and the language used in the invitation was pro-Beijing, she said.

Ms. Kwan said she went to CSIS to see if this was a foreign-interference operation but never heard back from the spy agency.

Last week, Commissioner of Canada Elections Caroline Simard, who investigates electoral wrongdoing, said the Liberal candidate’s campaign agent paid a $500 fine for not declaring the event as an election expense.

In his testimony, former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu, a critic of Beijing, said foreign interference by China was a significant factor in his 2021 election loss in the riding of Steveston-Richmond East. Chinese-language social media labelled him a “race traitor” and white supremacist supporter, he said, and posts circulating on Chinese-language social media said he was anti-China.

Mr. Chiu said his treatment by Chinese-language media was different from their treatment of his Liberal Party opponent. For example, he said, during the 2021 campaign, his opponent had an in-studio interview and profile on Vancouver Chinese radio. Mr. Chiu was never profiled, even though one of the co-founders of the station knew him and had his personal contact information.

He said community organizations such as the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations and the Canadian Community Service Association also shunned him.

Mr. Chiu said he no longer received invitations for meetings with them or their leaders. People who previously supported him refused to take his calls, did not respond to his messages and would not meet with him.

The commission presented documents that show even Chinese-language media in the Greater Toronto Area were attacking Mr. Chiu as anti-Chinese.

“I was exposed and the government doesn’t seem to care and now through the commission, I learned they knew all about it. It was almost like I was drowning and they were watching,” Mr. Chiu told the inquiry.

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