Skip to main content

The head of Canada’s spy agency has been recalled for a second appearance before the public inquiry into foreign interference, after the Prime Minister’s inner circle testified they were never warned in early 2023 about Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

The Foreign Interference Commission inquiry, which was established by the federal government to investigate meddling by other countries in Canadian democracy, was supposed to wrap up its current round of public hearings on Wednesday, after hearing from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josèe Hogue, who is leading the commission, ruled late Tuesday that Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault must return on Friday to testify again.

Lawyers for human rights groups, the Conservative Party, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and MPs Michael Chong and Jenny Kwan had urged Justice Hogue to recall Mr. Vigneault, who originally testified last week. They argued that the CSIS Director should face further questioning in response to testimony at the inquiry earlier on Tuesday from four of the Prime Minister’s top advisers: chief of staff Katie Telford, deputy chief of staff Brian Clow, senior adviser Jeremy Broadhurst and global affairs adviser Patrick Travers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, cabinet ministers testify at foreign interference inquiry: Live updates

Han Dong was warned by Liberal Party member that CSIS was watching him, national security source says

PMO, top ministers and senior officials received 34 briefings on foreign interference since 2018, CSIS says

Those officials took issue with a top secret CSIS document, which summarized a briefing prepared for the Prime Minister’s Office in February last year. The document, released at the public inquiry on Monday, said Beijing had “clandestinely and deceptively interfered in both the 2019 and 2021 general elections.”

The document, dated Feb. 21, 2023, was drafted in response to media stories, including one in The Globe and Mail, that outlined a sophisticated election interference campaign by China and its proxies.

In both elections, the document said, China’s interference was “pragmatic in nature and focused primarily in supporting those viewed to be either ‘pro PRC’ or ‘neutral’ on issues of interest to the PRC government.”

Mr. Clow told the inquiry that when the briefing was actually delivered, not all of the information was shared with the PMO. “Most of the information in that document … was not relayed to us in that meeting – particularly the very stark conclusions,” he said.

The document ended with a warning that better protecting Canadian democratic institutions against foreign interference “will require a shift in the government’s perspective and a willingness to take decisive action and impose consequences on perpetrators.”

It concluded by saying that foreign interference will persist until it “is viewed as an existential threat to Canadian democracy and governments forcefully and actively respond.”

Sujit Choudhry, a lawyer for NDP MP Jenny Kwan, said Mr. Vigneault must explain why PMO officials say key details of the briefing document were never provided to them.

“It’s important to recall Director Vigneault to answer questions about the briefing notes, including whether they reflect the views of CSIS,” Mr. Choudhry said.

Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff, Ms. Telford, told the inquiry she was surprised by a report in The Globe early last year, based on secret and top secret CSIS documents, that said China wanted a return of a Liberal minority government and sought to defeat certain Conservative candidates in 2021.She said she never saw CSIS intelligence that suggested Beijing had favoured the Liberal party over the Conservatives in the 2021 election. She added that she was never told “either publicly or privately by any government official” that foreign interference had an impact on the past two elections.

Ms. Telford said she would have expected China to be more supportive of the Conservatives than the governing Liberals, considering the tense relations between Ottawa and Beijing over the imprisonment of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who were released from detention in China in September, 2021.

Mr. Broadhurst testified that he believed China wanted to sow chaos and undermine democracy. He argued that Chinese diplomats may have falsely promoted foreign influence activities in Canada to gain favour with their superiors back home.

The PMO advisers were asked about allegations from Mr. O’Toole, the Conservative leader from 2020 to 2022, that his party lost up to nine seats in the 2021 election because of Chinese state disinformation activities. Vancouver-area Conservative MP Kenny Chiu previously testified at the commission that he was defeated in the election because of a China-sponsored disinformation campaign.

A document tabled with the inquiry showed that in the week before the 2021 election, a unit of the Department of Global Affairs assigned to detect foreign state-sponsored disinformation observed what the group considered a possible “information operation” by the Chinese Communist Party, aimed at discouraging Canadians of Chinese heritage from voting Conservative. There is no indication that Mr. O’Toole was informed of this by government officials overseeing the election’s integrity.

Mr. O’Toole told the inquiry last week that he believed his party had been targeted by Beijing because of its platform. The party’s pitch to voters included calls for a registry of foreign agents, a ban on the use of products from the Chinese tech company Huawei in domestic telecoms, and withdrawal from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Mr. Clow noted that CSIS was never able to provide solid evidence that China had directed a disinformation campaign against the Conservatives, and particularly against Mr. Chiu. The “tide was turning” against Mr. Chiu because he was “wearing the Conservative’s Party shift on China,” Mr. Clow said.

The Conservatives were “moving from regime-based criticism to a be-fearful-of-China writ large,” Mr. Broadhurst testified. “It was turning off the Chinese Canadian community,” he said.

Mr. Broadhurst also cast doubt on Mr. O’Toole’s claim that foreign interference had cost the Conservatives between five and nine seats. Those ridings were “close and we won them,” he said.

Ms. Telford made it clear that the PMO does not take CSIS intelligence at face value. She noted that she had pushed back against CSIS threat allegations against an unnamed MP. She said the agency later acknowledged it had made a mistake and reversed its assessment.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe