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“With CSIS, everything’s a big secret,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford once said about a 2022 briefing his government received about Chinese interference.

It seemed funny at the time, because of course Canada’s spy agency is secretive. But when you hear the way federal officials failed to pass on useful information of foreign election interference to political parties during the 2021 election campaign, you can see the problem.

Senior government officials on a foreign interference-oversight panel called representatives of political parties together to talk to them about the potential for foreign interference, but just not in a way that was useful. There were PowerPoints, and indications that foreign powers might seek to influence Canadian politicians and, in the words of Liberal Party national director Azam Ishmael, a talk on “cybersecurity 101.”

But there were no specifics. The representatives of political parties who received those classified briefings told the Foreign Interference Commission they didn’t really provide information they could actually use.

The NDP’s Anne McGrath testified that parties were asking how they would know if there was foreign interference, and what they should do about it. “That information was not available,” she said. She said the parties needed that, as well as information about what was happening at the riding level.

Political parties weren’t warned about Chinese foreign interference in 2021 election, inquiry hears

“That seems to me to be the purpose, is to be able do something about this.”

Ah, yes. The goal is to be able to do something about it. Doing something about foreign interference sure seems like a good idea now, but it doesn’t seem like it was a driving objective in 2021.

Everything was indeed a big secret. The details were scrubbed so the parties didn’t really get the message in 2021 that foreign interference was a serious threat. And when the parties got information after the election about cases of interference, government officials didn’t seem that interested.

This was a secret shrug.

Excessive secrecy and a lack of seriousness in combatting interference combined to make it hard to spot it, let alone stop it.

The Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force, known as SITE, didn’t share the document it had drawn up in July, 2021, to brief political parties about foreign interference. At least the cleared representatives of the Liberal Party, Conservative Party and NDP said they hadn’t seen it.

Walied Soliman, co-chair of the 2021 Conservative campaign, sure wished he had seen the part that said China might interfere to aid those it deems pro-Beijing and oppose those deemed anti-Beijing. That would have raised alarms that would make a political party ask more questions and try to monitor such interference, he said.

Opinion: The foreign interference inquiry can’t shy away from revealing sensitive truths

Mr. Soliman said he was upset that, when the Conservatives contacted officials after the election with concerns about potential Chinese government interference in 13 ridings, he was brushed off. He was frustrated to read about foreign interference in that campaign in The Globe and Mail two years later.

Ms. McGrath said when they read reports that NDP MP Jenny Kwan had been a 2021 target for Beijing’s interference in 2023, officials seemed to treat it as a low priority.

Sure, there are secrets that officials can’t reveal. But there has to be a way to ensure that the ringing of an alarm isn’t redacted. Mr. Ford was right: If everything is a big secret, there isn’t enough information to act upon.

A serious effort to combat foreign interference in elections – a vital national security interest – requires the government to establish a practical means to declassify or distill intelligence into something that can be useful. Because the purpose, as Ms. McGrath said, is to do something about it.

Last week, we heard that Elections Canada has only limited audit powers that won’t detect whether Chinese government officials or diplomats encourage proxies in Canada to donate to a candidate. Caroline Simard, the Commissioner of Canada Elections, the federal elections investigator, said her office is unlikely to discover clandestine foreign donations.

On Tuesday, we heard that political parties, key actors in election campaigns, didn’t get enough useful information to understand there was a real threat, let alone act to detect or deter it.

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