Former governor-general David Johnston needs to recommend a public inquiry into China’s foreign-interference operations because of mounting evidence of the Liberal government’s unwillingness to take seriously Beijing’s threat to Canadian democracy, opposition MPs say.
The government announced Friday that Mr. Johnston, its special rapporteur, will table his report into Chinese foreign interference on Tuesday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the report will include Mr. Johnston’s decision as to whether a public inquiry is necessary.
In March, Mr. Trudeau appointed Mr. Johnston, a family friend, to investigate Chinese interference into the last two elections after The Globe and Mail reported Feb. 17, based on Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents, that Beijing employed a sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy in the 2021 election campaign.
Highly classified CSIS documents, seen by The Globe, also outlined how China targeted at least 11 candidates in the 2019 election. The documents said the 11, along with 13 members of their staffs, had direct connections to a “known or suspected malign actor.” CSIS did not name the actor.
The Prime Minister’s Office has said the government “will comply with, and implement [Johnston’s] recommendations, which could include a formal inquiry, a judicial review, or another independent review process.”
Since Mr. Johnston’s appointment, The Globe revealed Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei was behind efforts to intimidate Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong and family members in Hong Kong in 2021 to retaliate for the MP sponsoring a parliamentary motion critical of Beijing human rights abuses against its Uyghur minority.
The government has since expelled Mr. Zhang over the incident and China responded by sending home a Canadian diplomat based in Shanghai.
Ibbitson: It’s time for David Johnston to provide answers on interference in Canada’s elections
The Globe reported Friday, citing a national-security source, that in the run-up to the 2021 election, then-public safety minister Bill Blair delayed approval of an electronic and entry warrant to monitor Ontario Liberal power-broker Michael Chan.
“There is overwhelming evidence of Beijing’s interference in our democracy and overwhelming evidence that the Prime Minister turned a blind eye to it,” said Conservative MP Michael Cooper. “Canadians deserve answers and the only way to get those answers is through an independent public inquiry.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said Friday neither Mr. Trudeau nor anyone working for him had knowledge of the warrant application against Mr. Chan, a former Ontario cabinet minister, Liberal Party organizer and fundraiser who is now deputy mayor of the city of Markham.
“This process does not involve the Prime Minister nor his office, and neither the Prime Minister nor his office are informed when a warrant is with the Minister for approval,” PMO spokesperson Alison Murphy said.
NDP House Leader Peter Julian said MPs shouldn’t be finding out this information from reading The Globe and Mail. “The allegations brought forward by The Globe reinforce what New Democrats have been saying about the need for a public inquiry into foreign interference,” he said.
“We believe Mr. Johnston needs to heed the clear will of Parliament where all parties and independent MPs – except the Liberals – voted yes on the NDP motion to call a public inquiry into foreign interference.”
Mr. Chan has for years been a national-security target of the spy service because of alleged ties to China’s Toronto consulate and proxies of Beijing. He has been observed by CSIS meeting with the expelled Chinese diplomat, Mr. Zhao, according to a national-security source and CSIS documents.
The national-security source told The Globe that Mr. Blair, now Minister of Emergency Preparedness, took about four months to sign off on the warrant before it was sent to a federal judge in June, 2021, for final approval. The Globe is not naming the source because they risk prosecution under the Security of Information Act.
On Friday, Mr. Blair denied that it took four months to sign the warrant. “No warrant application ever took as long as four months for approval,” he said. “They were signed expeditiously.”
National-security experts, including former CSIS director Richard Fadden, say ministers usually sign off on warrants after 48 hours to a week.
Mr. Chan told The Globe he was not aware that a warrant had been authorized to monitor him clandestinely and said he is a victim of “shadowy allegations and absurd conspiracy theories,” simply because he has had contact with Chinese diplomats as part of his work duties.
He said in a statement: “CSIS has never discussed their concerns with me but continues to unjustifiably harass, intimidate, threaten and frighten my friends and acquaintances.”
Stephanie Carvin, a former national-security analyst and associate professor of international relations at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said the government should do a better job of explaining why it took so long to approve the warrant.
“The government is being told that transparency is fundamental for countering foreign interference, but is struggling to explain its own actions,” she said. “The warrant was clearly a complicated case and needed special consideration. Explaining the processes around such consideration should not be a state secret.”
But human rights lawyer Paul Champ said the leaks of this sensitive information are a threat to Canadian democracy.
“Blair has a duty under the CSIS Act to approve warrants. He should not be a rubber stamp,” he said in a Tweet. “This constant partisan leaking is itself dangerous.”
Mr. Trudeau has asked CSIS to find the whistleblowers and the RCMP says an investigation is now under way into the leaks. The RCMP is not investigating China’s interference operations, which include allegations of illegal violations of Canada’s election laws, citing a lack of evidence to stand up in court.
Other CSIS reports viewed by The Globe warn that Beijing is the “foremost perpetrator” of foreign interference in Canada. Its agents are unconcerned about repercussions, one report says, because of the lack of obstacles such as a foreign-influence registry of the kind established in the United States and Australia.
The government has been eyeing a package of measures that could be instrumental in safeguarding Canadian democracy from foreign interference instigated by hostile states such as China, but so far has only moved ahead on one item.
Ottawa has held public consultations to set up a foreign-agent registry that would require people advocating for a foreign state to register their activities. Legislation is expected later this year.
But the government has yet to move on three other significant measures that were presented to cabinet last summer, according to four government officials.
The sources say these include changing the Criminal Code to make foreign interference an offence; modernizing the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, created in 1984, to allow the spy agency to share more information on foreign-interference activities; and revising the Security of Information Act.
The Globe is not identifying the officials because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.