Skip to main content

A long-awaited public inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian elections is set to launch in September. The issue has dominated the headlines again since The Globe reported details of China’s sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy

What to know about foreign interference in Canada's affairs

What is foreign interference?

The Government of Canada website describes foreign interference as “harmful activities undertaken by foreign states, or those acting on its behalf, that are clandestine, deceptive, or involve a threat to any person to advance the strategic objectives of those states to the detriment of Canada’s national interests.”

Foreign interference can be classified as threats, harassment or intimidation by foreign states against anyone in Canada, the act of targeting a government official to influence public policy or decision-making, or the act of covertly influencing the outcomes of elections.

A top-secret report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), seen by The Globe, warns that Beijing views Canada as a “high-priority target” for foreign interference. China sees Canada that way because it’s a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, which also includes the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and because the country has a “robust reputation that can be used or co-opted to help legitimize [Chinese Communist] Party interests.”

How did China try to influence Canadian elections?

2021 federal election: Secret and top-secret documents viewed by The Globe reveal that Chinese diplomats and their proxies had two primary aims in the 2021 federal election: to ensure that a minority Liberal government was re-elected in 2021; to defeat certain Conservative candidates considered to be unfriendly to Beijing.

2019 federal election: The Globe reported in late December that the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received a national-security briefing during the fall in which he was told China’s consulate in Toronto had targeted 11 candidates – nine Liberals and two Conservatives – in the 2019 federal election. CSIS Director David Vigneault told Mr. Trudeau that there was no indication that China’s interference efforts had helped elect any of the candidates, despite the consulate’s attempts to promote the campaigns on social media and in Chinese-language media outlets.

2022 Vancouver municipal election: China’s diplomatic mission in Vancouver actively interfered in the city’s politics, using proxies in diaspora community organizations and grooming politicians to run in the 2022 Vancouver municipal election, CSIS said in a report.

The Jan. 10, 2022, report viewed by The Globe and Mail outlines how China’s then-consul-general, Tong Xiaoling, discussed mentoring – or as the report quoted her, “grooming” – Chinese-Canadian municipal politicians for higher office to advance Beijing’s interests and getting “all eligible voters to come out and elect a specific Chinese-Canadian candidate” during the 2022 mayoral vote.

What else has happened?

On May 1, The Globe reported on a top-secret CSIS intelligence assessment that said China sees Canada as a “high-priority target”. The CSIS report was an overview of Chinese government foreign interference in Canada, and included a description of how a Conservative MP and his family were targeted by a Chinese diplomat. A national-security source told The Globe the MP was Michael Chong and the diplomat was Zhao Wei. Mr. Chong was targeted after his work in spearheading a 2021 parliamentary motion that declared Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs to constitute genocide.

Those reports of China targeting Mr. Chong kicked off a series of extraordinary diplomatic events from both the Canadian and Chinese government. On May 8, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced that Canada has expelled Mr. Zhao – the first Chinese diplomat to be ordered to leave in decades.

Mr. Zhao left Canada on May 12.

The Chinese embassy in Canada issued a strongly worded statement after Ms. Joly’s announcement that promised “countermeasures.” Hours later, Beijing said Jennifer Lynn Lalonde, a Shanghai-based diplomat, had been declared “persona non grata” and told to leave the country by May 13 – in what China said was a response to Canada’s own “unscrupulous” expulsion of Mr. Zhao.

Who is the whistleblower who brought all this to light?

The Globe published a confidential opinion piece on March 17 from the whistleblower who leaked key CSIS reports about China’s interference in the Canadian elections. The national-security official wrote about their decision to reveal the secret and top-secret intelligence documents – and why the decision did not come easily “Months passed, and then years. The threat grew in urgency; serious action remained unforthcoming. I endeavored, alone and with others, to raise concerns about this threat directly to those in a position to hold our top officials to account. Regrettably, those individuals were unable to do so.”

Canada's public inquiry into foreign interference

On March 6, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered two closed-door probes after facing growing calls to launch an investigation into claims of Beijing’s influence in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. Mr. Trudeau also announced former governor-general David Johnston will take on the role of special rapporteur to review the findings.

Mr. Johnston’s first report, released on May 23, ruled out a public inquiry.

All three major opposition parties continue to call for an independent public inquiry. The choice of Mr. Johnston also was criticized. On June 9, Johnston resigned the post, blaming the “highly partisan atmosphere around my appointment.”

The long-awaited public inquiry into foreign interference is set to launch in September. Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue has agreed to head the inquiry after months of negotiations with the opposition parties.

Latest news and stories about foreign interference

The foreign interference inquiry can’t shy away from revealing sensitive truths
Thomas Juneau
With authoritarianism on the rise, Canada should expect more foreign interference
John Packer
The foreign interference film we deserve: Mr. Chong goes to Washington
The Editorial Board
The public inquiry into foreign interference can roll back official secrecy
The Editorial Board