Former governor-general David Johnston’s initial recommendation on how the federal government should respond to allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian elections is due Tuesday. Here’s hoping he proposes a wide-ranging public inquiry into Beijing’s efforts to undermine our democracy.
As Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, Mr. Johnston has been given broad powers to assess “the extent and impact of foreign interference in Canada’s electoral processes,” as the order-in-council setting out his mandate puts it, and how the government has responded to that interference, both historically and in the last two elections, along with “any other related matter of importance.”
Mr. Johnston has access to confidential documents, including those subject to cabinet confidence. He has, in short, everything he needs to issue an informed recommendation. The publicly available evidence, as reported by this newspaper and others, suggests that an inquiry is required.
According to sources within the intelligence community, the Chinese government attempted to influence the outcome of the last two federal elections by supporting the campaigns of certain candidates, most of them Liberal, because Beijing preferred to see a Liberal rather than Conservative government in power.
Funds flowed to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, a charity, in hopes of influencing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after he became Liberal Leader in 2013. The foundation’s board and CEO resigned after Robert Fife and Steven Chase broke that story.
The Chinese consulate in Vancouver also allegedly sought to influence the outcome of the October, 2022, Vancouver municipal election.
Finally, in the weeks after Mr. Johnston was appointed, The Globe and Mail reported on efforts by the Chinese government to exert pressure on, among others, the family of Michael Chong, the Conservative MP and foreign affairs critic, who led the successful effort to have the House of Commons condemn the Chinese government for its genocidal treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities.
There are influential voices who believe Canada should be strengthening relations with China rather than condemning it.
Eddie Goldenberg was a senior adviser to then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, who led the effort in the 1990s to deepen ties between Canada and China. In a recent issue of Policy Magazine, Mr. Goldenberg warned that “resolutions in parliaments, trade or other sanctions, or denunciations by western governments alone simply do not work and are often counterproductive.” They ignore the complexity of Chinese history and the economic power of China today, he observed.
Rather than decoupling from China, Mr. Goldenberg urged renewed and closer bilateral relations. For both strategic and economic reasons, he wrote, “withdrawing from the table is not a viable option.”
In a recent analysis, the Canada West Foundation cited warnings that the Trudeau government’s decision to expel a Chinese diplomat accused of orchestrating political interference could place canola or pork exports at risk, along with Canadian retail operations in China, such as Tim Hortons, Canada Goose or Roots.
However, other analysts said that China would seek to avoid a trade war. “I think they’re hoping this goes away,” Professor Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the University of Alberta’s China Institute, told the Toronto Star.
A properly conducted public inquiry could help rather than hinder Sino-Canadian relations. The Chinese government needs to understand that, while Canada wishes to sustain and deepen economic ties between the two countries, Canadians cannot and will not turn a blind eye to Chinese human-rights abuses and to threats against other democracies, such as the threat to invade Taiwan.
Nor will the Canadian government stand by while Beijing attempts to interfere in our elections or influence or coerce Canadian politicians or ordinary citizens.
“Let’s keep talking and trading, but if you try to interfere in our internal affairs, we will stop you and punish you,” seems like a perfectly reasonable approach for Canada to take with China or any other country.
Mr. Johnston may recommend some forum other than a public inquiry. This desk trusts him to make the right call. But we need action. Reasonable people are asking to what extent China has interfered in Canadian politics and to what extent federal governments past and present let them get away with it.
We need answers. We will soon find out how David Johnston thinks we should get them.