Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue delivers opening remarks as the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions begins hearings on March 27, 2024 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada’s inquiry into foreign interference will begin two weeks of public hearings on Wednesday, a day after Ottawa joined its Five Eyes allies in blaming China for widespread cyberattacks that U.S. officials have said targeted politicians and Beijing’s critics.

The Foreign Interference Commission inquiry, announced by the federal government in September and headed by Quebec Superior Court Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, held preliminary public hearings in January and early February. Those five days of testimony focused on the limitations and potential impacts of disclosing national security information to the public.

The hearings that begin this week will focus on meddling in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 federal elections – interference that The Globe and Mail has reported, based on documents and national security sources, was directed by China. These hearings will be the first to include testimony from diaspora groups and politicians targeted by China. The inquiry will also hear from elections officials, Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault, RCMP Commissioner Michael Duheme and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The commission is required to deliver a report on election interference by May 3. A second round of hearings will examine proposals to combat foreign interference. A final report from the commission on those proposals is due in late December.

As the hearings get under way, Canada’s fellow members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance – Britain, the U.S., New Zealand and Australia – are making fresh foreign interference allegations against China. U.S. and British officials filed charges and imposed sanctions against alleged Chinese state-backed hackers on Monday, and accused Beijing of conducting a sweeping cyberespionage campaign intended to harass critics of the Chinese government, steal trade secrets of U.S. corporations and spy on and track high-level political figures. Officials said the campaign may have compromised the data of millions of people.

Laura Payton, a spokesperson for the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cyberintelligence agency, said on Wednesday that Canada has been targeted by the same Chinese hackers believed to be behind those attacks, a group known to Western officials as Advanced Persistent Threat 31, or APT31.

The CSE “generally does not comment on specific cybersecurity incidents,” she said, “however, we can confirm that we have seen malicious activity by this same threat actor targeting Canada.”

In response to Monday’s allegations, Beijing urged the U.S. and Britain to stop politicizing the issue of cybersecurity, and accused the two countries of smearing China and imposing unilateral sanctions.

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

“It is pure political manoeuvring for the United States and the United Kingdom to rehash the so-called cyberattacks carried out by China and to sanction Chinese individuals and entities,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said at a regular press briefing.

The Canadian government has in the past accused China of using social media to spread disinformation about Mr. Trudeau, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong and NDP MP Jenny Kwan.

On Tuesday, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said in a statement that senior ministry officials had conveyed concerns to the Chinese ambassador about cyberattacks attributed to groups sponsored by the Chinese government, targeting democratic institutions in both New Zealand and Britain.

“Foreign interference of this nature is unacceptable, and we have urged China to refrain from such activity in future,” Mr. Peters said.

The Chinese embassy in New Zealand said in a statement that China rejects “such groundless and irresponsible accusations.”

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said in a joint statement that although their country’s electoral systems were not compromised by the alleged cyberattack on Britain, “the persistent targeting of democratic institutions and processes has implications for democratic and open societies like Australia.”

In 2019, Reuters reported that Australian intelligence had determined that China was responsible for a cyberattack on Australia’s national parliament and three largest political parties before that year’s general election in the country. The Australian government never officially disclosed who was behind the attack.

With a report from Reuters

Follow related authors and topics

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

Interact with The Globe