Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Diaspora community members Grace Dai Wollensak and Mehmet Tohti (right) listen to Hamed Esmaeilion (left) speak at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, on March 27 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

If the inquiry on foreign interference grew out of allegations about elections, Mehmet Tohti personalized its mission.

Mr. Tohti was there to talk what Uyghur Canadians have been through and he drew a picture through some of his own experiences.

Just before he testified to a parliamentary committee in 2021, he received a message that his mother, whom he had not seen for years, was dead. Two years later, when he was pushing for the resettlement of Uyghur refugees, a Chinese police officer called, with a relative of Mr. Tohti also on the line.

“Basically, sending a message that this was the cost if you continue to advocate,” he said. “The cost for advocacy in Canada is really high for some communities. Also, there’s a lack of protection in Canada.”

Mr. Tohti, of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said he reported that threat and others. It didn’t seem to trigger any action. He and other Uyghur Canadians have been followed or watched. Some people, Mr. Tohti said, might not call those things foreign interference because they are not about one country acting against another country.

“When it comes to the individual level, it is about threat,” he said.

“It is about hijacking your family members to force you or compel you to live [under] the rule of a hostile regime, in a democratic country like Canada. And force you to be an informant. And use all their state power, like proxies, institutions or covert agents on the ground, like police stations, just to chase you and put pressure on you to stop what you are doing.”

Actually, that’s a pretty good definition of foreign interference, on all levels. If you substitute the hijacking of family members with the hijacking of fellow citizens, or institutions, it sums up the problem that has brought us to a public inquiry. It is about the reach of hostile regimes into Canada to press this country to stop what it is doing.

Just how much of that interference actually happened in last two federal election campaigns is the question the Foreign Interference Commission, led by Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, is tasked with answering first, by next month.

Yet there’s no doubt that there has been foreign interference in Canada. There are living and breathing victims.

Mr. Tohti was one of a half-dozen representatives of diaspora organizations on a panel at the commission, representing Iranian Canadians, Russian Canadians, Sikh Canadians and Chinese Canadians. What they recounted was not spy-versus-spy between states or cold theft of commercial secrets. It was personalized intimidation.

It is also foreign governments extending their grasp into Canada to repress Canadians, as a tool of their power. Increasingly, it is a tool of choice. And it appears it is now employed with shocking impunity: Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged in the House of Commons that Indian agents killed a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Surrey, B.C. And U.S. prosecutors allege he was on a wider hit list.

Maybe Canadian authorities can’t stop a Chinese police officer from calling a Uyghur Canadian or threatening their relatives in China. China’s repression of Uyghurs has included the imprisonment of more than one million people, an extensive surveillance network, forced labour and disappeared people. Complaints to Beijing are rejected.

But those panelists raised reports of proxies and agents in Canada, including the since-closed unofficial Chinese police stations in major centres. In the United States, there have been indictments or convictions for such cases, but not here. Canada still hasn’t adopted a foreign-agent registry.

The panelists from the diaspora community were unanimous in reporting intimidation, but also that they were mostly on their own to deal with it. There was a lack of reaction from Canadian authorities. And a lack of prevention.

That doesn’t tell us who did what to interfere in the last two elections. But many of the folks who told the commission their communities are targeted also believe the interference extends into politics.

Jaskaran Sandhu, representing the Sikh Coalition, said he believes the Indian government interferes, but noted the Canadian system of party nominations and leadership races is more vulnerable than general elections. Mr. Tohti said former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole earned ire from Beijing for vocally supporting Uyghur rights campaigns and pressing Mr. Trudeau on the issue – and suggested current leader Pierre Poilievre softened the party’s stand for fear of offending China.

What the commission heard Wednesday is that there is already lots of evidence, in the personal experience of individual Canadians, that there is foreign interference in Canadian politics.

Follow related authors and topics

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

Interact with The Globe