A long-awaited public inquiry into foreign interference is set to launch this month but experts are raising concern the time allotted is too short, the mandate too broad and the judge appointed to lead it has no apparent experience in national security.
Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc confirmed Thursday that Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue has agreed to head a public inquiry into foreign interference by China and other hostile states after months of negotiations with the opposition parties.
Justice Hogue, in a separate statement, announced she will begin her job as commissioner effective Sept. 18
“It is vital that our electoral processes and democratic institutions be protected from foreign interference,” she said, adding that more details on when hearings will begin would follow.
The government and the opposition parties also reached an agreement on the terms and timing of the long-awaited inquiry, with the first report on election interference due early in the new year – Feb. 29, 2024 – and the final report at the end of 2024.
“Justice Hogue will be tasked with examining and assessing interference by China, Russia and other foreign states and non-state actors, including any potential impacts on the 2019 and 2021 general elections at the national and electoral district levels,” Mr. LeBlanc said.
Mr. LeBlanc said Justice Hogue will have the full support of the opposition parties but noted that part of the inquiry will be held in secret so she can hear classified testimony and view top-secret documents.
He said Justice Hogue will have “full independence” to reach conclusions and assured Canadians that the government will make sure she has access to all necessary documents.
The terms of reference for the inquiry do not provide details on the size of the commissioner’s office or its budget.
Stephanie Carvin, a former national-security analyst and an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said the February deadline for the first report does not give Justice Hogue much opportunity to delve deeply into the matter – given that it will take weeks to set up a commission office and staff.
Mr. LeBlanc defended the timeline but acknowledged that Justice Hogue is free to ask for more time.
NDP House Leader Peter Julian said Justice Hogue has agreed to the very “aggressive timelines” for the two reports because all opposition parties want to ensure that her final recommendations can be implemented before the next election, set for 2025.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said it required concerted media coverage and pressure in Parliament for the Liberal government to finally set up a public inquiry, and that his party is prepared to hold the government to account if this probe doesn’t shed more light on foreign meddling.
“As more and more reporting of this came to light, the Liberals attempted to hide and cover up the truth about Beijing’s interference,” Mr. Poilievre said in a statement. “And while we accept the terms of reference and commissioner for this inquiry, we will not hesitate to call them out again if this process doesn’t deliver real answers to Canadians.”
Bloc Québécois House Leader Alain Therrien said the party was “very pleased” with the appointment of Justice Hogue, although he acknowledged that many other judges, including those with national-security credentials, had turned down the job.
There have been months of reporting on Chinese foreign interference, including revelations in The Globe and Mail on May 1 that Beijing targeted Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong in the lead-up to the 2021 election.
The disclosure of this meddling prompted Ottawa to expel Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei later that month.
The Globe produced more than 15 stories based on national-security sources and secret Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents, including a February story relying on CSIS intelligence reports that described a concerted strategy by Beijing to disrupt the democratic process in the 2021 election.
All-party talks on launching an official public inquiry into foreign interference by countries such as China dragged into late summer as the government reportedly had a difficult time finding an eminent jurist to lead the inquiry.
Justice Hogue does not appear to have a background in national-security issues. Her main areas of practice as a lawyer were corporate commercial litigation, civil litigation and professional liability, according to her Court of Appeal biography.
Mr. LeBlanc defended her qualifications, saying that senior judges advising him spoke of the merits of appointing a commissioner with “a fresh set of eyes” and “without a series of detailed experiences in this very space.”
The terms of reference, agreed to by the major political parties, require Justice Hogue to submit the first report, due by the end of February, on foreign interference by China, Russia and other foreign state or non-state actors, in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
In addition, the report would look at the flow of foreign-interference assessments to senior government decision-makers, including elected officials, during the election periods.
A final report, to be delivered by the end of December, 2024, would also make recommendations for better protecting Canada’s democratic processes from foreign interference. The next federal election is scheduled for the fall of 2025, but a campaign could happen at any point if the NDP were to withdraw its support from a pact with the Liberal government.
National-security expert Dan Stanton questioned why the mandate of the inquiry included Russia and other hostile states when, in his opinion, China and its proxies have been largely responsible for election interference.
“Why are so many foreign entities being included in a list relating to the 2019 and 2021 federal elections? Only China has been identified as targeting those elections. Are they all to be allotted equal time and resources for review?” he asked.
“Other states do conduct foreign interference in Canada, but their activities are not likely to be electoral interference,” said Mr. Stanton, a former manager in counterintelligence at CSIS, who is now director of the national-security program at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute.
Mr. Stanton said he would also have liked to see the terms of reference specifically deal with Chinese government threats against former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong and NDP MP Jenny Kwan.
“Were senior officials and elected officials made aware, and if not, why not?” he said. “What other MPs were threatened by the PRC? What did the government know?”
Mr. LeBlanc defended the broad mandate. “China is not the only foreign actor that seeks to undermine democratic institutions in Canada or other Western democracies,” he said, adding that Justice Hogue should be free to follow the evidence wherever it takes her. “We did not want to restrict it to one country alone.”
Carleton University’s Ms. Carvin said her main concern is that the focus of the inquiry is on election interference while ignoring China’s activities in the economic sphere. She also said there is little mention about the harassment and bullying of members of diaspora communities who speak out against Beijing’s human-rights abuses.
“We do know with The Globe and Mail’s reporting on Wealth One Bank and with regards to harassment of individuals in Canada that this problem goes far beyond the scope of what has been identified,” she said.
“The people who have been the most open about this problem are going to be effectively ignored by the terms of reference. It does kind of leave the impression that we only care about this issue when politicians are affected but not diaspora communities or everyday Canadians,” Ms. Carvin said.
The governing Liberals this spring initially resisted launching a public inquiry despite three votes calling for one in the House of Commons by opposition parties, who hold the majority of seats.
Instead, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped former governor-general David Johnston to investigate Chinese government interference in the 2019 and 2021 election campaigns. His report, which concluded that there was no need for a public inquiry, was widely criticized and denounced by the three main opposition parties.
Mr. Johnston abruptly announced his resignation in June, citing a “highly partisan atmosphere.”
It appears Justice Hogue will not get greater access to classified documents than Mr. Johnston. The last clause in the terms of reference released Thursday directs that the commissioner be given access “to those confidential cabinet documents that came into existence on or after Nov. 4, 2015, and that were provided to the Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference in relation to the preparation of his First Report, dated May 23, 2023.”
Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer said the inquiry should focus largely on China but added that “if any foreign state actors are interfering in our elections that should be uncovered and dealt with.”
Mr. Scheer issued a warning that Conservatives expect the Prime Minister to provide cabinet confidences and all classified documents to Justice Hogue.
“If he does not fully co-operate and does not produce the documents … we will keep pressure on him so he does not get away with sweeping that under the rug.”
Democratic Institutions Minister Dominic LeBlanc says Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue will lead a public inquiry into foreign interference. She is tasked with investigating allegations China, Russia or other foreign actors attempted to interfere in the past two federal elections. (Sept. 7, 2023)
The Canadian Press