Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Commissioner Justice Marie-Josée Hogue listens to counsel during the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on March 27.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Leaders of diaspora groups detailed how their communities have been bullied and harassed by hostile foreign states and their proxies in Canada, telling the Foreign Interference Commission that the intimidation is a threat to Canadian democracy.

The commission heard Wednesday from a panel of Chinese, Sikh, Iranian, Russian and Uyghur-Canadian activists on the opening of nine days of public hearings into foreign-influence operations in the 2019 and 2021 elections – testimony that described threats of verbal and physical abuse and even an alleged murder.

Among the activists was Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, who had announced last month that he would not participate in the inquiry. He planned to boycott because he feared being cross-examined by former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Michael Chan, now deputy mayor of Markham, and former Liberal MP Han Dong, now sitting as an independent. Several diaspora groups were upset that full party standing was granted to the two men because of their alleged close ties to the Chinese government.

Mr. Tohti decided to testify after Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue ruled that, among other measures, he and other activists would not face cross-examination.

Mr. Tohti, co-founder and former vice-president of the World Uyghur Congress, described being the subject of several forms of transnational repression from China and its agents of influence. He recounted how he received a message via Twitter stating that his mother in China was dead just as he was preparing to testify before a parliamentary committee in 2021.

A timeline of events that led to the public inquiry into foreign interference

He was devastated by the message, he said, not only for its disturbing content but because it indicated his whereabouts and activities in Canada were being monitored.

Mr. Tohti has been completely isolated from in-person contact with his family members in the more than 30 years since he left China. None of his relatives, including his mother or siblings, were permitted to visit Mr. Tohti and since 2016 he has been unable even to communicate with them.

Uyghur Canadians live in “total darkness” about their family members back in China, he said.

“This is what it means when they call it foreign interference. It touches your life. It touches your safety. It touches your security. It touches your family’s comfort. It touches your career. It touches your future. You don’t sleep. You don’t know what kind of bad news you will receive when you wake up tomorrow morning,” Mr. Tohti said.

“This is the exact situation of Uyghur Canadians right now.”

Justice Hogue asked Mr. Tohti if he ever went to the police and how they responded to the threats and harassment.

“It’s a waste of time. I have gone numerous times and we don’t get any response,” he replied.

He noted that he was a target because he successfully lobbied the House of Commons to pass a motion on Feb. 22, 2021, that declared China’s treatment of Uyghurs to be a genocide.

A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2022 said China had committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities that “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

In the 2021 election, Mr. Tohti said the Conservatives under then-leader Erin O’Toole were the only party whose campaign platform addressed requests of Uyghur Canadians to acknowledge China’s mistreatment of their people as genocide, ban the import of goods made with forced labour and counter transnational repression.

“That is one of the important reasons why Chinese government was mad about and increased the campaign against the Conservative Party,” he said.

Mr. Tohti said by comparison current Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre appears to have backed off being a strong critic of China over its treatment of Uyghurs.

Winnie Ng, representative of the Chinese Canadian Concern Group, said the United Front Work Department, the main overseas influence arm of the Chinese Communist Party, has become emboldened in its foreign interference operations.

She said they have taken over Chinese-Canada community organizations and Chinese language newspapers while co-opting politicians and resorting to intimidation to create an “atmosphere of fear to stop and persuade Chinese Canadians” from speaking out against the People’s Republic of China.

Ms. Ng said she and her organization were branded as racists and anti-Asian by pro-Beijing figures in Canada because she campaigned for a foreign-agent registry.

Grace Dai Wollensak, representative of the Falun Dafa Association of Canada, explained how members of the religious minority face torture, rape and forced labour in China and persecution and harassment in Canada. Falun Gong members are subjected to disinformation campaigns, intimidation and verbal and physical assaults in Canada to stifle and marginalize them, she said.

At one point, Ms. Dai Wollensak broke down in tears when she explained how the City of Ottawa once tried to interfere in freedom of expression by preventing Falun Gong from raising large protest banners outside the Chinese embassy. The city later relented.

Jaskaran Sandhu, representative of the Sikh Coalition, said Indian intelligence agents operating out of consulates have been targeting the Sikh community in Canada since the 1980s, when many Sikhs fled to Canada to escape political and religious repression.

New Delhi has exported extrajudicial activities against Sikhs who are exercising their rights to free speech in advocating for a separate Sikh homeland in the Indian state of Punjab, he said.

“They killed Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a president of a major gurdwara in Surrey in the parking lot … a leader of the Sikh community slumped over his steering wheel, bleeding out, who was shot multiple times as part of a transnational assassination program,” Mr. Sandhu said. “That is the cost of foreign interference in this country and not taking it seriously.”

Mr. Sandhu said disinformation campaigns are also a tool widely used by India, particularly against those advocating in Canada for a Sikh homeland. “We are getting targeted by misinformation. We are getting maligned. We are victims of lies,” he said.

Proxies close to the Indian government are also recruited to lobby on behalf of New Delhi and “used in nomination and leadership races” at every political level in Canada, he said.

Mr. Sandhu said these kinds of closed political races are “very easy to manipulate” and “easy to give cash to candidates.”

Iranian Canadian Hamed Esmaeilion, a representative of the Association of Families of Flight PS752, which seeks justice for the victims of the airplane shot down by Tehran in 2020, said operatives for Iran’s government attempt to interfere in Canada’s political affairs and monitor the Iranian-Canadian community in Canada, working to identify pro-democracy activists living in this country.

“I have been targeted on social media,” he said, noting he also faced verbal and physical threats.

He added that Iran has created institutions disguised as community advocacy groups in Canada to influence governments. He also complained about the increasing number of former Iranian government or military officials being granted permanent residency or visas to visit Canada.

“This small minority has demonstrated an intent and capacity to cause division in the Iranian-Canadian community while creating an atmosphere and intimidation here in this country,” he said.

Yuriy Novodvorskiy, a representative of the Russian Canadian Democratic Alliance, which promotes democracy and human rights in Russia, said Moscow attacks Canada through direct and indirect threats to members of the Russian-Canadian community and bombards this country with disinformation with pro-Kremlin messaging and conspiracy theories.

He said he believes the goal of this disinformation through social media is to undermine faith in democracy and increase political polarization.

The Kremlin last week labelled the Russian Canadian Democratic Alliance an “undesirable” organization.

Mr. Novodvorskiy said in some instances Russian police will press the Russia-based relatives of Russian-Canadian activists in Canada.

Moscow will also bring criminal charges against Russian-Canadian activists in Canada, even for postings on social media, he said. This inhibits their ability to gain citizenship in Canada.

Justice Hogue opened the public hearings Wednesday saying she wants to release as much information as possible about meddling in the 2019 and 2021 elections, but warned some details must be kept secret to protect national security.

She stressed that she not only wants to determine the extent of foreign activities in the two elections but what actions the federal government took when informed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

“I want to emphasize that, up to now, confidentiality related to national-security issues has in no way hindered my ability to search for the truth. The commission has had access to a large number of classified documents in their entirety,” she said. Still, “the commission must walk a very fine line in its work.”

She noted, however, that she has a tight May 3 deadline for submitting her findings. A second phase will look into proposals to combat foreign interference, and that report must be submitted before the end of December.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe