Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Ken Sim, mayor of Vancouver, responds to questions about reports of interference by China's Vancounver consulate at a press conference at Helena Gutteridge Plaza near city hall in Vancouver, on March 16. An RCMP spokeswoman confirmed that there is no RCMP investigation into this matter.Kayla Isomura/The Globe and Mail

The RCMP is not investigating foreign interference in Vancouver’s election last year, despite a Canadian intelligence report that China’s consul-general sought to shape the outcome of that vote.

The report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service describes Tong Xiaoling, then China’s chief representative to the West Coast city, as saying that “they needed to get all eligible voters to come out and elect a specific Chinese-Canadian candidate,” in the mayoral race, while also assessing a specific person to “groom” as a councillor.

The description of that conduct, denied by the Chinese government, has added to calls for Canada to address more seriously the threat of foreign interference at all levels of government. Such meddling, some have said, constitutes a threat to national sovereignty.

But Canada’s national police force says it is not pursuing a case.

In a statement, spokeswoman Robin Percival said “there is no RCMP investigation into this matter at this time.” She suggested anyone who suspects foreign interference call local police.

In Tuesday’s federal budget, the Liberal government announced more than $60-million to fund counterinterference work, including nearly $50-million for the RCMP and $13.5-million to create a National Counter-Foreign Interference Office in the Department of Public Safety.

The lack of police action in Vancouver, however, underscores the breadth of obstacles to confronting interference by other countries. In part, that’s because Canada has made it difficult for information gathered by intelligence to be used in court.

But at least some of what the Chinese government sought to accomplish appears to be perfectly legal.

The Vancouver consul-general’s conduct as described by CSIS “does not appear to violate the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act,” Elections BC spokesman Andrew Watson said in a statement.

Until recently, British Columbia placed no limits on foreign spending on political campaigns. That changed with a series of 2017 amendments that barred direct political contributions from people outside the province.

But B.C.’s laws do “not specifically address foreign interference outside of these provisions,” Mr. Watson said. In 2020, Elections BC recommended dozens of additional legislative changes to address threats from foreign interference, deliberate disinformation and anonymous digital advertising, which it said “have jeopardized the integrity of free and fair elections.”

Earlier this month, the B.C. government proposed new amendments in response.

Most legislation, however, has sought to address paid influence, through advertising. “If you’re not spending money, then you’re not going to run afoul of our election campaign-financing provisions,” said Keith Archer, the former chief electoral officer in B.C.

Such laws fit awkwardly with social-media platforms that can bring large audiences within reach at no cost. Federal law has barred “partisan activity” funded by a foreign entity. In B.C., no such restriction exists.

“Provided you do not step over the line into the regulated interactions” – such as paid advertisements – “it’s still essentially a Wild West scenario,” said Rachel Roy, a specialist in election law who is a partner at Allevato Quail & Roy, a Vancouver law firm.

Provincial law remains “really focused on the traditional methods of advertising. But the world has changed so much and the way we get and share information has changed so much that I think there’s certainly a gap,” she said.

Former governor-general David Johnston, who has been appointed Ottawa’s special rapporteur into Chinese interference, will examine only the past two federal elections. Canada’s federal elections legislation doesn’t cover provincial or municipal votes, and therefore a separate review by the Commissioner of Canada Elections will also not look at what took place in Vancouver.

Many of the fundamental concerns about foreign interference are not new to Western democracies.

“A lot of foreign-interference activities operate in a grey zone where they aren’t clearly illegal. There’s a real parallel with the Cold War and what was referred to as ‘subversion,’ ” said Steve Hewitt, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham and specialist on the history of Canadian state surveillance.

Both CSIS and its predecessor, the RCMP Security Service, monitored Soviet subversion. CSIS disbanded its countersubversion branch in the late 1980s as the Cold War drew to a close, although subversion has remained a part of its mandate.

Still, “I’m unaware of anyone ever being prosecuted as a subversive,” Mr. Hewitt said. The mere act of ‘influencing’ someone or even a policy isn’t necessarily a criminal act, even if done on behalf of a foreign interest.”

Other countries have used foreign-agent registries as one tool in response. Earlier this month, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Ottawa will begin consultations on the creation of such a registry in Canada. Some parts of the Chinese community in Canada have protested that idea. Senator Yuen Pau Woo has warned about the registry “becoming a modern form of Chinese exclusion.”

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim, who won the election last year, declined to comment on the lack of an investigation by the RCMP. Kennedy Stewart, the incumbent defeated by Mr. Sim, also declined to comment.

Fred Pinnock, a former commander of the RCMP illegal-gaming task force in B.C. who has been an outspoken critic of the RCMP, cautioned that police have in the past issued statements meant to “muddy the waters a little bit” about investigations that are under way.

Responding to foreign interference “requires some courage on the part of the Prime Minister’s Office and the leadership of the RCMP and the provincial government in B.C. to work together to protect us as a nation,” he said.

But Canada, he noted, has long-standing issues with sharing intelligence between security services and police. That can frustrate efforts to seek justice.

In 2021, for example, an Ontario Superior Court judge stayed a prosecution against Qing Quentin Huang, a shipbuilding engineer who, authorities said, had been heard on a wiretap offering to sell Canadian naval secrets to the Chinese government.

The case was halted for an unreasonable delay, after lengthy judicial wrangling over what evidence could be admitted in court. Court documents said CSIS had been listening in on calls to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa. Government lawyers fought to keep details about the CSIS operation out of court.

This is the equivalent of the murderer walking into the police station, setting the gun on the counter and saying, ‘I did it,’ ” said Aaron Shull, the managing director and general counsel at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a Waterloo-based think tank.

Yet the prosecution foundered.

“What signal is this sending to an adversarial state?” Mr. Shull asked.

It’s a problem of what is called “intelligence-to-evidence” that requires institutional changes to address.

Western leaders, Mr. Shull said, should make it their goal to respond in such a way that foreign authoritarian regimes are “terrified to undermine a democratic process in a G7 country.”

“The fact that adversarial states are seeking to undermine that is one of the most aggressive behaviours they can perpetuate against us – and I think they should be treated as such.”

Follow related authors and topics

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

Interact with The Globe