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A top-secret Canadian Security Intelligence Service briefing prepared for the Prime Minister’s Office in February last year said Beijing had “clandestinely and deceptively interfered in both the 2019 and 2021 general elections.”

The classified document, dated Feb. 21, 2023, was drafted in response to media stories, including one in The Globe and Mail, that outlined a sophisticated campaign by China and its proxies to interfere in the 2021 election. The document was made public on Monday, when it was tabled at the Commission of Inquiry into Foreign Interference.

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“We know that the PRC clandestinely and deceptively interfered both in the 2019 and 2021 general elections,” the document said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

In both cases, it said, China’s interference was “pragmatic in nature and focused primarily in supporting those viewed to be either ‘pro PRC’ or ‘neutral’ on issues of interest to the PRC government.”

The document said that there had been 34 previous CSIS briefings on foreign interference for the PMO, senior ministers and top civil servants, including officials responsible for election integrity. Those briefings were held between June, 2018, and December, 2022, it said. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had at least two briefings, one in February, 2021, and one in October, 2022.

The foreign interference inquiry, headed by Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, was announced by the federal government in September, after months of reporting by The Globe and other media on meddling by China in Canadian democracy, including the 2019 and 2021 elections. The inquiry is now nearing the end of two weeks of public hearings on election interference by China and other foreign countries.

Mr. Trudeau has dismissed foreign interference, particularly in the 2021 election. He has accused the Conservatives of being sore losers and insisted the overall results of that election, in which the Liberals were returned with a minority, are not in doubt.

Political parties kept in dark about Chinese foreign interference in 2019 and 2021 elections

Erin O’Toole, who was leader of the Conservatives during the 2021 election, has acknowledged that the Liberals won. But he told the inquiry last week that his party lost as many as nine seats because of Chinese state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.

The document explained that Canadian intelligence officials considered it likely that China had transferred $250,000 to Canada for foreign interference operations during the 2019 election. In the 2021 election, the document said, Canadian intelligence had found that China was bent on defeating Conservative candidates, and that it had waged a disinformation campaign against Mr. O’Toole and Conservative MP Kenny Chiu, who was defeated in that campaign.

In 2021, China’s foreign interference activities “were almost certainly motivated by a perception that the Conservative Party of Canada was promoting a platform that was perceived to be anti-PRC,” the document said. “We also observed online and media activities aimed at discouraging Canadians, particularly of Chinese heritage, from supporting the Conservative Party, leader Erin O’Toole, and particularly Steveston-Richmond-East candidate Kenny Chiu.”

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The document said multiple cabinet ministers and senior officials had been briefed on the “role of co-optees and proxies in the PRC foreign interference efforts” in Canada. “Until [foreign interference] is viewed as an existential threat to Canadian democracy, and governments forcefully and actively respond, these threats will persist,” it added.

The commission heard on Monday from senior officials who sat on the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel, which had a mandate to warn the public during the past two elections if there were serious concerns about foreign interference.

One official who served on the panel, Nathalie Drouin, a former deputy minister of justice and currently Mr. Trudeau’s national security and intelligence adviser, told the inquiry Monday that the panel did not have concrete proof of China’s activities against the Conservative Party in the 2021 election.

In both 2019 and 2021, Ms. Drouin said, the panel did not want to issue warnings about China’s activities for fear of alarming the public.

“There was some risk that any intervention by the panel can create more harm than good. It had the potential to create confusion and also to be seen to be interfering in a democratic exercise, and we want also to make sure we are not seen to be taking a partisan position in any debate,” she said.

Gib Van Ert, counsel for Conservative MP Michael Chong, who CSIS has said was targeted by China in the 2021 election, asked the panel why they didn’t put out a warning in Mandarin that the information being spread about Mr. Chiu was false.

David Morrison, who in 2021 was acting national security and intelligence adviser and is now deputy minister of foreign affairs, replied that it was up to Mr. Chiu to debunk the false information. “It is not the panel’s role to decide what is true or what is false,” he said.

Ms. Drouin was asked why the panel had alerted the Liberal Party about possible interference from China in the Liberal nomination race in Don Valley North, where Han Dong ultimately became the candidate and later won the riding in the 2019 election. CSIS had information that international students from China had been bused to the nomination meeting, and that the Chinese consulate in Toronto had pressed them to vote for Mr. Dong.

Ms. Drouin said the panel had informed the Liberals as a “mitigation” measure. Mr. Van Ert told Ms. Drouin that informing the Liberals doesn’t seem to have achieved any mitigation. He noted that Mr. Dong is now an MP.

Former privy council clerk Janice Charette, who chaired the panel in 2021, said the group was confident that the year’s election, including races in individual ridings, was fair and unaffected by foreign interference.

Ms. Drouin said she was satisfied the 2019 election was conducted fairly.

But according to a summary of Mr. Morrison’s previous closed-door testimony with the inquiry’s counsel, which was disclosed publicly Monday, he briefed the government in the weeks after the 2021 election on a “significant piece of intelligence” involving potential foreign interference from an unnamed country.

“He viewed this intelligence as the closest thing to a ‘smoking gun’ that he had seen during his tenure” as national security adviser, the summary said.

When questioned at the inquiry on Monday, Mr. Morrison said he was unable to identify the country or provide any further information in a public setting.

Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of the advocacy group Democracy Watch, said on Monday that he is concerned that the federal civil servants who run election monitoring units lack independence. He suggested this makes them unwilling to take steps to expose and stop foreign interference.

“Almost everyone who monitors foreign interference for the federal government has been appointed by, and serves at the pleasure of, the ruling party cabinet, and the rules they operated under were aimed at covering up instead of exposing and stopping interference,” Mr. Conacher said.

“Given their lack of independence from the ruling party cabinet, it is not surprising to see that Canada’s watchdogs over foreign interference are defending the government’s enforcement record during the 2019 and 2021 elections.”

Lawyers for human rights groups tabled a motion at the inquiry on Monday intended to address concerns that crucial evidence is being made available to them and other parties at the last minute, giving them little time to read the documents before grilling government witnesses.

The lawyers told Justice Hogue on Monday that the late filings are a violation of procedural fairness.

Justice Hogue said she understands that “some feel that they don’t have the necessary time to prepare their cross examination properly.” She ruled that she will make some modifications to the hearings.

Sarah Teich, counsel for the Human Rights Coalition, noted that Privy Council documents were tabled after CSIS Director David Vigneault and Privy Council Office official Allen Sutherland had already testified last week. Mr. Sutherland helped set up a special election oversight task force composed of senior civil servants, known as the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force, or SITE.

Ms. Teich requested that Mr. Vigneault and Mr. Sutherland be recalled for further examination. Justice Hogue said she would allow the lawyers to submit written questions to the two men.

The commission will wrap up this round of public hearings on Wednesday with testimony from the Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers. Another set of hearings is scheduled to take place in the fall.

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