Key highlights: Katie Telford's testimony
- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford told MPs that on the issue of foreign interference, “there is nothing that is ever kept from the Prime Minister.” Ms. Telford added that whenever the Prime Minister could act on the foreign meddling, he did.
- Conservative MP Michael Cooper told the Committee Friday that the Chinese consulate in Toronto had told former Conservative MP Bob Saroya before the 2021 election that he would be defeated in the campaign. Mr. Saroya was one of a number of incumbent Conservative MPs in ridings with significant Chinese Canadian voters who lost their ridings in 2021.
- Ms. Telford questioned the appropriateness of her testifying at the committee, and repeatedly invoked national security concerns to explain why she couldn’t answer many questions. “Unfortunately, I can’t provide information about what I have or have not been briefed on,” Ms. Telford said early in the committee hearing.
Follow the updates below from our reporters in Ottawa.
After Telford’s testimony, what happens next?
Following Ms. Telford’s testimony, the committee will continue its study of foreign interference. It has also called senior Liberal and Conservative operatives who were in charge of those parties’ last two election campaigns: Jeremy Broadhurst, Azam Ishmael, Hamish Marshall and Walied Solomon.
Mr. Johnston will have until May 23 to make a recommendation on whether to call a public inquiry. Mr. Trudeau has said he will accept whatever Mr. Johnston suggests.
Conservative MP asks Telford if she or PMO were briefed on ‘cryptic and threatening text message’ sent to ex-MP Bob Saroya
Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull asked Ms. Telford whether she feels that “Canadians are well served” by what he characterized as efforts by opposition MPs to “score cheap political points” and make this into a “partisan issue.”
Ms. Telford said she does not feel Canadians are well served.
She talked up the value of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, a body created by the government that reports to the Prime Minister, which has agreed to investigate foreign interference in Canada. She noted it has representatives from many parties. This committee, however, is not a committee of Parliament.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper told the committee that 10 weeks before the 2021 election, former Conservative MP Bob Saroya received a “cryptic and threatening text message” from Beijing’s consul-general in Toronto suggesting he would no longer be an MP after the 2021 election. Mr. Saroya lost his seat in the 2021 election. Mr. Cooper asked Ms. Telford whether she or anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office was ever briefed on this.
Ms. Telford said she could not “speak to this.”
Mr. Cooper asked her whether she had any knowledge of interference by Beijing in the 2021 election in the riding of Markham-Unionville – Mr. Saroya’s former riding.
Ms. Telford said she could not speak to this.
Liberal MP Sameer Zuberi asked Ms. Telford about the “limits and caveats” around intelligence.
“Sometimes the intelligence is wrong,” the chief of staff told MPs.
She said it has to be put into a wider context.
Conservative MP questions Telford about ex-Liberal MP Han Dong’s exit from caucus
During questioning from Quebec Liberal MP Sherry Romanado, Ms. Telford stressed that foreign interference was not a new phenomenon in the 2019 election campaign – that it has been a long-standing problem. CSIS documents that have previously been released to the committee show that the Liberals were briefed on it in 2015 after they won that election, Ms. Telford said.
She claimed the Liberals have done more than any previous government to address foreign interference.
Separately, Ms. Telford was asked by Ontario Conservative MP Michael Barrett about former Liberal MP Han Dong’s exit from caucus last month. Mr. Dong left the caucus and is sitting as an independent while he sues Global News for reporting that he says is defamatory and incorrect.
The story centres on a conversation Mr. Dong had with China’s top diplomat in Toronto. The Globe has previously reported that the Trudeau government determined there was no “actionable evidence” after it received a CSIS transcript of the early 2021 conversation.
Ms. Telford told the committee Friday that she was never involved in any conversation about whether Mr. Dong should be removed as a candidate for the 2021 fall election.
Liberal MP asks Telford if agencies currently have power to address foreign inference
Liberal MP Greg Fergus asked Ms. Telford whether law enforcement and intelligence agencies already have permission to act and use the powers available to them to address foreign interference?
Ms. Telford said she certainly believes so.
Mr. Fergus asked Ms. Telford whether she is familiar with these tools and whether she feels they are satisfactory to address foreign interference.
The chief of staff said the government is learning more and more about this every day.
“I think the tools have been used more than they ever have before,” she said.
Ms. Telford said foreign interference is an involving threat.
“The government has to continue to keep evolving and adapting as we learn about these threats.”
Mr. Fergus asked Ms. Telford about the government’s concerns about maintaining free and fair elections.
She said the government is keen on ways to build more trust among Canadians in elections. She said the government would welcome advice from parliamentarians.
She noted there has been testimony at other committees about worries at CSIS that went unheeded.
“If there is an alarm being sounded, the meeting could happen with the Prime Minister extremely quickly,” Ms. Telford said.
She said she’s frustrated with commentary suggesting there were no channels to raise urgent concerns with the Prime Minister.
“Anything that has come forward … he has acted on it,” she said.
The Bloc MP asked who in the government judges whether the intelligence from CSIS is correct.
Ms. Telford noted that national security adviser Jody Thomas would be present to receive the intelligence.
But, she said, “it’s really important we take the intelligence and talk it through.”
The Bloc MP asked who makes the decision to dive deeper into a matter.
Ms. Telford said experts including the heads of security agencies and the experts they bring with them.
Telford: Unsanctioned release of intelligence information ‘can put lives at risk’
MPs from each party are getting a chance to question Ms. Telford in brief increments of only a few minutes. Ontario Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell asked if there are concerns that the leaks of top secret intelligence puts Canada at risk because Canada is a “net importer” of intelligence – meaning allies share more with Canada than it shares with them.
Ms. Telford said unsanctioned releases of intelligence information “can put lives at risk.”
“It is in Canada’s national interest to keep information protected,” she said.
In subsequent questioning from Bloc Québécois MP Christine Normandin, Ms. Telford further disputed reporting from Global News that the Prime Minister or his office were briefed on Beijing’s foreign interference in January, 2022.
Ms. Normandin asked Ms. Telford if she was present at the meeting reported by Global. Ms. Telford replied: “There wasn’t such a meeting to be present at.”
Conservative MP asks about January, 2022 report
Conservative MP Michael Cooper asked about a January, 2022, report and whether Mr. Trudeau read it.
Ms. Telford said she could not speak as to whether he had been briefed on any particular document or subject. But she said Mr. Trudeau reads every document.
Mr. Cooper asked her when Mr. Trudeau was first briefed on Beijing’s interference in the 2019 election.
Ms. Telford noted the PROC committee has received a list of foreign interference briefings.
Mr. Cooper interrupted, saying he is not just asking about formal briefings.
“Canadians deserve to know when he first learned about it.”
Ms. Telford said this has been an ongoing conversation.
Mr. Cooper persisted. He asks about the PCO intelligence assessment secretariat’s report of Feb. 21, 2020, a document already shared with the committee.
It speaks of “subtle but effective” interference networks by Beijing in the 2019 election.
He asked when Mr. Trudeau received the document.
Ms. Telford said she could not tell him when the Prime Minister received that document.
“Your inability or refusal to answer whether the Prime Minister had in fact read this document … is troubling,” Mr. Cooper said. “It invites suspicion.”
Ms. Telford said if Mr. Trudeau receives documents, he reads them.
She said he is briefed on a regular and ongoing basis.
NDP MP: Will Canadians ‘stand for it’ if David Johnston rejects inquiry?
Ms. Blaney asked Ms. Telford if Mr. Johnston recommends against a public inquiry – does she think Canadians will accept that?
Ms. Telford said she doesn’t want to presume what he recommends.
The NDP MP asks Ms. Telford whether Canadians will “stand for it” if an inquiry is rejected by Mr. Johnston.
“I don’t want to presume where the special rapporteur goes,” Ms. Telford said.
Conservative MP Luc Berthold asked Ms. Telford about the Globe story of Feb. 17 that talked about a Chinese government strategy to interfere in the 2021 election and which quoted CSIS documents.
He asked if Mr. Trudeau also saw these documents.
“I can’t get into what the Prime Minister has or has not been briefed on,” Ms. Telford replied.
Mr. Berthold asked the chief of staff about Globe reporting on Chinese tactics, including undeclared cash donations and how Beijing directed Chinese students studying in Canada to work as campaign volunteers, and illegally returned portions of donations so donors were not out of pocket after claiming a tax receipt.
Ms. Telford said that in respect to donations and fundraising, “there are very robust fundraising laws in this country.”
NDP MP asks Telford if public inquiry is needed
NDP MP Rachel Blaney prefaced her question to Ms. Telford by saying she feels Canadians “are losing faith in our systems.”
Ms. Blaney said foreign interference is eroding Canadians’ trust in our elections.
She asked Ms. Telford whether she feels a public inquiry is needed, noting, “even your former colleague Gerald Butts has called for a public inquiry.”
Ms. Telford said the matter has to be “taken out of the partisan arena.”
Ms. Blaney said it seems Ms. Telford is not interested in really answering the question and asked if she had ever advised Mr. Trudeau against launching a public inquiry.
Ms. Telford talked about how the public inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act worked well.
She said the government decided “we actually needed someone” to figure out what was needed – what could other bodies such as NSICOP not cover off.
She noted that former governor-general David Johnston will make that decision and file a first report next month.
Ms. Blaney asked whether she was informed last year about the Chinese government funding at least 11 candidates in the 2019 federal election.
Ms. Telford said she will repeat what national security adviser Jody Thomas said. “The connection that was being made between these candidates and the funds was inaccurate.”
Ms. Blaney asked Ms. Telford again: “Every time we turn around it feels like there is another article, another thing coming out and this slippery slope of information … is leading people to distrust.”
She asked the chief of staff to speak more clearly on the matter.
Ms. Telford said she was not sure what to say because she doesn’t want to confuse matters.
Opposition MPs question Telford on government response to foreign interference attempts
Opposition MPs have repeatedly focused their questions on the government’s response to foreign interference attempts in the last two federal elections around what the Prime Minister knew, when he knew it and how he responded to it.
Throughout her first 40 minutes of testimony, Ms. Telford has been very careful not to disclose any information about what was said in her intelligence briefings.
But she did tell MPs that on the issue of foreign interference “there is nothing that is ever kept from the Prime Minister.”
“Any time the Prime Minister can take action, he takes it.”
Conservative MP questions Telford on Trudeau’s foreign interference briefing
The first questions for Ms. Telford came from Ontario Conservative MP Larry Brock, who began by asking when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was briefed on foreign interference. A document presented by the Privy Council Office just before the committee began detailed when the Prime Minister was given formal briefings on foreign interference in the past few years.
However, the document does not detail when he received informal briefings, and Ms. Telford was unable to specify when those occurred. She also cautioned MPs that in a public setting she cannot provide information on what she herself has or has not been briefed on.
Katie Telford makes opening remarks
Katie Telford starts with opening remarks right away, playing down the value of intelligence, saying it is rarely actionable on its own.
“Intelligence rarely paints a full concrete or actionable picture.”
Instead, she stresses the need for decision-makers to analyze intelligence as a piece of a puzzle.
Ms. Telford reiterates familiar talking points about how the Liberals set up a panel of public servants to monitor the 2019 and 2021 elections and that these monitors determined the elections were held freely and fairly.
Foreign interference is an evolving threat, she said.
She cautioned that she may not be the most important witness for the committee.
“I am a consumer of intelligence, not the one who briefs on intelligence,” she said.
Ms. Telford in her opening remarks she is usually with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he receives national security briefings.
She said over the years she has seen a huge range of intelligence from all parts of the world. “Some of it has been wrong, proven wrong, some of it right. Some we may never know or only with time will we learn if it’s true even intelligence.”
The PMO’s chief of staff said she would always fight for democracy and the right of Canadians to conduct elections fairly and freely.
She said she will do her best to answer MPs’ questions but cautioned that she is constrained by security concerns.
Katie Telford to testify at committee: How we got here
Ms. Telford has been the Prime Minister’s chief of staff since the Liberals won power in 2015. During her testimony, which is scheduled to begin at noon, she is expected to be asked to explain what she and Mr. Trudeau knew about Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections and what they did to stop it.
Ms. Telford attends most national-security briefings and would know how the Prime Minister responded to warnings from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about Chinese state meddling in Canadian politics.
Despite the convention of ministerial accountability – which holds that ministers, rather than their staff, are supposed to answer for their departments – this will be the third time that Ms. Telford has testified before a committee. She first testified during the WE Charity scandal. The second time she appeared at a committee was to answer questions about the government’s mishandling of sexual harassment allegations in the military.
All of her committee appearances have occurred during the past three years, a period during which opposition parties have had more control over committee work because of the minority Parliament.
The Liberals tried to thwart the latest push for her to testify by filibustering, but ultimately acquiesced to an NDP motion rather than risking a more sweeping parliamentary study proposed by the Conservatives.
Opposition parties have strongly criticized the Prime Minister’s response to a series of reports in The Globe and Mail, based on secret and top-secret CSIS documents, that detailed meddling by the Chinese government and its proxies in Canadian elections. In response to opposition calls to strike a public inquiry, Mr. Trudeau instead appointed former governor-general David Johnston to advise him on whether he should launch one.
Mr. Trudeau has also asked two closed-door panels, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), to study China’s interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections. Mr. Johnston will review the results of their work. He will have until May 23 to make a recommendation on whether to call a public inquiry.