Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told MPs Thursday that while she denied a visa to a suspected Chinese political operative last fall, it is harder to expel Beijing’s diplomats already in Canada without compelling evidence of foreign interference.
Ms. Joly said Ottawa also has to weigh the risk of a tit-for-tat reaction from Beijing that could harm Canada’s ability to have “eyes and ears” on the ground in China.
“Let me tell you if we have any clear evidence of any wrongdoing, we will send diplomats packing very, very quickly,” she told a House of Commons committee studying Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
A timeline of China’s alleged interference in recent Canadian elections
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Appearing before the committee on procedure and House affairs, Ms. Joly confirmed a report in The Globe and Mail that she denied a visa to a diplomat suspected of being sent here to engage in foreign interference.
“When China wanted to send a political operative last fall, we decided to deny a visa, which was obviously the right thing to do,” she said. “I believe it is easier to prevent. I think the question afterward, when it comes to diplomats in our country, is how do you make sure you have the evidence to deal with an expulsion and what are the impacts of an expulsion.”
Ms. Joly acknowledged that Canada has not expelled any Chinese diplomats despite Canadian Security and Intelligence Service reports, seen by The Globe, that explain how China has interfered in the past two elections.
“One visa denied. Not a single diplomat expelled. Hardly the action of a government that takes Beijing’s interference seriously,” Conservative MP Michael Cooper said.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong told The Globe that Article 9 of the Vienna Convention, which governs diplomatic relations, does not require evidence for a country to expel diplomats.
“The minister is making excuses for not having acted to protect Canadians from Beijing’s interference by expelling diplomats suspected of being involved in these activities,” he said. “Governments can expel diplomats without any evidence.”
Opposition MPs on the committee, meanwhile, have been trying since Tuesday to pass a motion to call Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, to testify about when she and the Prime Minister were informed of Chinese interference activities and what they did about it. On Thursday, Liberal MPs continued to filibuster to prevent a vote from taking place.
MPs did agree, however, to suspend the debate for an hour to hear from Ms. Joly and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc. The committee is expected to resume sittings Tuesday during a parliamentary break.
The Globe reported Feb. 17 that Beijing employed a sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy in the 2021 federal election campaign. Secret and top-secret CSIS documents outlined how Chinese diplomats and their proxies backed the re-election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals – but only to another minority government – and worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered to be unfriendly to Beijing.
NDP MP Rachel Blaney asked whether Ms. Joly was aware of the intelligence outlined in The Globe report.
CSIS documents referred to the former Chinese consul-general in Vancouver who talked in November, 2021 of the defeat of an MP in the 2021 election and said this loss “proved their strategy and tactics were good and contributed to achieving their goals while still adhering to the local political customs.” A national-security source in The Globe story said the MP was former Conservative member of Parliament Kenny Chiu.
“Were you aware of this? Were there any actions taken upon by yourself and the department to pressure the Chinese government to withdraw her as a diplomat,” Ms. Blaney asked.
Ms. Joly said it is difficult to discuss sensitive intelligence but acknowledged that she might not have seen the report. She has since asked for all intelligence reports on Chinese interference.
“When it comes to activities of foreign actors in the country, the Foreign Affairs Minister was not made aware. And since then, I have made sure that changed,” Ms. Joly said. “As Minister of Foreign Affairs, I need to make sure that I have access to that information.”
Mr. Cooper noted that China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, was summoned for an official reprimand concerning a Chinese spy balloon spotted over North American airspace and illegal police stations in Canada. He asked how many times the envoy was called in over election interference.
Senior Global Affairs official Jennie Chen told the committee that the first time Ottawa lodged an official complaint with the ambassador about Chinese interference was on Feb. 24, a week after The Globe report.
Ms. Joly said she raised Chinese election interference with China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang at a G20 meeting last week.
“I looked him in the eye,” Ms. Joly said, telling him Canada would not tolerate foreign interference in domestic affairs.
As The Globe reported Thursday, despite the current tensions with Ottawa, China is still making an effort to smooth relations
Wang Shouwen, a high-ranking Chinese official, led a delegation to Ottawa this week where he met with senior bureaucrats from several government departments including David Morrison, deputy minister of foreign affairs, as well as Rob Stewart, deputy minister of international trade. Mr. Wang is a senior Chinese Communist Party official at the Ministry of Commerce and serves as vice-minister of commerce as well as the China International Trade Representative.
The government declined to identify the officials whom Mr. Wang met with at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and at Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED), which is in charge of vetting foreign takeovers.
Laurie Bouchard, a spokesperson for Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne, said the minister did not attend the meetings.
Mr. Wang also met Tuesday with Senator Peter Boehm, chair of the Senate committee on foreign affairs and international trade. Mr. Boehm, a former Canadian diplomat named to the Red Chamber by Mr. Trudeau in 2018, said he invited other senators to the meeting but nobody chose to attend.
“They are obviously on a charm offensive of some kind,” Mr. Boehm said of the Chinese.