Efforts to meddle in the 2021 federal election did not affect the outcome of the vote, a new report based on the work of a panel of senior public servants has determined.
“National security agencies saw attempts at foreign interference, but not enough to have met the threshold of impacting electoral integrity,” Morris Rosenberg, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs, wrote in the report for the federal government.
However, the report recommends that Ottawa consider adjusting the rules for when the public is alerted of foreign interference to account for incidents that might fall below that threshold.
Mr. Rosenberg’s findings come more than 10 days after The Globe and Mail reported, based on Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents, that China employed a sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy in the 2021 election campaign.
The secret and top-secret documents, viewed by The Globe, reveal that 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.
The CSIS documents outline how China spread falsehoods on social media and provided undeclared cash donations in the 2021 election. The documents also outline 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.
In 2019, the federal government set up the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel to keep watch for threats to federal elections during campaigns and notify the public if it detected serious efforts to interfere. Senior public servants in charge face a high bar for when Canadians are supposed to be alerted: an incident or an accumulation of incidents that threatens Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.
Mr. Rosenberg said the results of the 2021 election and its predecessor in 2019 were not altered by foreign interference.
“In 2019 and 2021, the panel, as part of the protocol, determined that the government of Canada did not detect foreign interference that threatened Canada’s ability to have free and fair elections,” the report said.
One of its recommendations, however, calls for national-security agencies to develop a program of unclassified briefings to boost the awareness that members of Parliament and senators have about foreign interference.
Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal minister responsible for democratic institutions, told CTV’s Power Play Tuesday that Mr. Rosenberg’s report shows that the measures put in place by the government, including the protocol, “resulted in no foreign interference, or even other electoral interference, such that the result of the vote would be compromised.”
Former federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has said that interference by China in the 2021 election campaign cost the party eight or nine seats.
The Rosenberg report said it’s difficult to determine what impact interference, or alleged interference, may have on an election. Mr. Rosenberg pointed to “pro-Beijing disinformation campaigns” that targeted Conservative candidates in the 2021 campaign.
Were Conservative losses in several ridings with large Chinese diaspora communities “due to attacks on the Conservative platform and on one of its candidates by media associated with or sympathetic to the Chinese government?” he asked. “Or were they the result of the Conservatives simply not being able to connect with sufficient numbers of voters in those communities?”
Mr. Rosenberg also served as CEO of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation between 2014 and 2018. The Trudeau Foundation was established in 2001 by the friends and family of Pierre Trudeau, and in 2002 was given an endowment of $125-million by the Canadian government to promote studies in the social sciences and humanities.
In 2016, the Trudeau Foundation and the University of Montreal announced that Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin and another wealthy Chinese businessman, Niu Gensheng, would donate $1-million “to honour the memory and leadership” of Pierre Trudeau, who as prime minister opened diplomatic relations with China in 1970.
Of the $1-million, $200,000 went to the Trudeau Foundation, which provides scholarships, academic fellowships and leadership programs. Another $50,000 was earmarked for a statue of the elder Mr. Trudeau, and $750,000 went to the University of Montreal’s faculty of law to fund scholarships, which include grants that help Quebec students visit China. Pierre Trudeau graduated from the faculty and later taught there.
As The Globe reported this week, this announcement followed instructions from a Chinese diplomat who told Mr. Zhang to give $1-million to the Trudeau Foundation. Mr. Zhang was promised full reimbursement by the Chinese government, a national-security source told The Globe. The Globe has not identified the source, who risks prosecution under the Security of Information Act.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper said Mr. Rosenberg’s 2021 election report is not credible, citing the fact that he was the former CEO of the Trudeau Foundation.
“After all it is written by the former head of the Trudeau foundation who on behalf of the foundation accepted $200,000 from a political adviser to the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “What really matters is for the Prime Minister to be transparent about what he knows about Chinese Communist Party interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.”
Anne McGrath, national director of the New Democratic Party, said she felt that Ottawa’s Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force in 2021 was “more of an afterthought” and reiterated NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s call for a public inquiry into foreign interference.
“I feel the Canadian public has a right to know more,” Ms. McGrath told CTV. “That is why I feel a public inquiry is probably the way to go.”
Mr. Rosenberg said there was no clear consensus among those federal officials he interviewed on whether the rules should be changed to allow below-threshold reporting of incidents.
“The threshold for an announcement was purposely set very high with the understanding that the intervention itself may contribute to the erosion of trust in the election,” he said. “And yet, if there is no mechanism to inform the voters targeted, they may exercise their votes based on false information or be intimidated into not voting at all.”
Separately, Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, wrote to Commissioner of Canada Elections Caroline Simard on Tuesday requesting that she open an investigation into Chinese interference operations in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
“Enough evidence of China-government sponsored election interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections has been reported to make it clear that the Commissioner needs to do a full investigation and issue a public report of what the investigation reveals concerning violations of Canada’s election law,” he said.
The Commissioner’s Office, which investigates election wrongdoing, has said it cannot comment on whether any investigation has begun.
With a report from The Canadian Press