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Walied Soliman appears virtually as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, in Ottawa, on April 2.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The group of senior bureaucrats responsible for detecting threats to the 2021 federal election failed to share explicit intelligence about Chinese state interference that was aimed at electing sympathetic MPs and targeting Conservative candidates, the public inquiry into foreign meddling heard Tuesday.

Documents tabled at the commission on foreign interference show that the Security and Intelligence Threat to Elections Task Force, known as SITE and comprised of senior civil servants, had classified intelligence that outlined sophisticated Chinese state influence operations in Canadian democracy.

A July, 2021, SITE document, written before the election was called on Aug. 15, said the People’s Republic of China (PRC) “is highly capable, motivated, and acts in a sophisticated, pervasive manner in carrying out foreign interference operations … to further party state interests.”

The document, titled “SITE briefing to secret cleared federal political parties,” went on to say China “covertly directs financial and voting support for favourable candidates” who are viewed as pro-China or do not “openly oppose viewpoints important to the PRC.” The vote was held on Sept. 20, with the Liberals returning with another minority government.

This information was never shared with the senior representatives of the Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic parties who received national-security clearances to be briefed on foreign interference in the 2021 election.

“I don’t recall getting this document,” said Walied Soliman, chair of Norton Rose Fulbright law firm and co-chair of the Conservative Party’s 2021 campaign. “I think any political party would have been alarmed by that statement and would have at the very least been engaged and asked a lot of questions to try to develop some sort of strategy to at least institutionalize the monitoring of that.”

Liberal Party national director Azam Ishmael and former NDP party director Anne McGrath, now principal secretary to Leader Jagmeet Singh, also said they don’t recall ever seeing the document.

The SITE document also noted that there was foreign interference, largely from China, in certain ridings during the 2019 election.

“If there was any sense that there was going to be activity by the People’s Republic of China against Parliament and certain MPs and interference in certain ridings, it would have been useful to know that,” Ms. McGrath said.

Mr. Ishmael said the briefings provided by SITE, which included Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers, were not particularly informative or “actionable.” He characterized the meetings as “cybersecurity 101.”

Foreign interference FAQs: What to expect from the public inquiry and how we got here

Another SITE document written later in the campaign explained how China and its proxies were targeting Conservative candidates over the party’s election platform that took an anti-Beijing stand. Party leader Erin O’Toole had called for a foreign-agent registry, tough action against forced labour of Uyghurs in China, a ban on Huawei Technologies gear and the withdrawal of Canada from the Asian Development Bank.

Again, this information was never shared with the three party representatives, the inquiry heard.

“If there is a specific or a potential of specific threat … we would have institutionalized at some level of monitoring of what was going on,” Mr. Soliman said.

Halfway through the election, Mr. Soliman said the party started “getting information on a few targeted ridings where there seemed to be campaigns of misinformation that appeared to be advanced by actors that the local campaigns couldn’t identify.”

He told campaign activists to get back to work, believing that SITE would have warned him if there were serious Chinese state operations against the Conservatives. “If there was something serious that was happening someone would let us know,” he said.

A few days after the election, Mr. Soliman said they gathered as much information as they could about what had happened in a number of ridings. They wrote to SITE that they believed Chinese foreign interference played a role in the defeat of Conservatives in 13 ridings.

On Monday night, Mr. Soliman was shown an October, 2021, SITE document that dismissed the Conservative complaints, claiming the Conservatives were unhappy that officials would not declare “there was organized and covert” foreign interference that had cost them the election.

“Rarely do I get upset,” Mr. Soliman said after reading the document. “At no time did Erin O’Toole or any member of his team try to make a Trumpian assertion that the election was lost to the Conservatives by election interference.”

It was only in 2023 that the Conservatives finally learned that China had interfered in the campaign from top secret and secret documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.

“My principal complaint is that two years after the election, I learned from a news story through The Globe and Mail that information … was inconsistent with what we were told at that time,” Mr. Soliman said. “So yes, was I frustrated? Absolutely.”

The Globe and Mail wrote 17 articles about foreign interference last year, mostly based on debriefings from national-security sources and leaked top secret and secret documents from CSIS. The documents illustrated how an orchestrated Chinese state machine was operating in Canada with two primary aims: to ensure that a minority Liberal government was returned in 2021, and that certain Conservative candidates identified by China were defeated.

The intelligence reports showed that Beijing employed disinformation campaigns and proxies connected to Chinese-Canadian organizations in Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area.

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