B.C. Premier David Eby wants to meet with Canada’s intelligence agency, saying he is disturbed by secret documents describing Beijing’s efforts to interfere in a Vancouver election, as some of the province’s senior political strategists call for urgent measures to address vulnerabilities in the democratic process.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service has described efforts by China’s consul-general in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, to “groom” someone for the city’s council and, in the 2022 mayoral vote, “get all eligible voters to come out and elect a specific Chinese-Canadian candidate.” The documents do not name any candidate.
The documents revealed this week by The Globe and Mail are “very troubling,” the Premier said Friday. He has requested a briefing from CSIS, to learn “about any issues that they’ve identified in British Columbia, so that British Columbia can act to close any gaps that we may have.”
In a statement, CSIS spokesman Eric Balsam said the agency speaks with elected officials of all political orientations and all levels of government “to raise awareness of the potential threats to the security and interests of Canada and provide advice on how to protect themselves and their staff.”
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He warned that foreign actors have taken aim at all levels of government. Those efforts “can be an effective way for foreign states to achieve their immediate, medium and long-term strategic objectives, often to the detriment of Canadian interests.”
Former governor-general David Johnston, who has been appointed Ottawa’s special rapporteur into Chinese interference, will examine only the past two federal elections, he told The Canadian Press Friday, despite documented attempts by the Chinese government to also sway municipal politics.
But with such a limited scope, “you’re going to get a half-baked cake,” warned Colin Metcalfe, a B.C. conservative political operative who has worked on campaigns from former prime minister Brian Mulroney to Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.
“Because the issue is systemic, throughout our democracy.” And it is often “the worst at the municipal level, where the least amount of scrutiny is often found.”
Part of the response, he said, must come from parties themselves, which have a responsibility to screen candidates and political staff for vulnerability to foreign influence.
In Canada, that is no easy task, said Kareem Allam, a long-time conservative strategist in the province.
“The only tool political parties have to determine whether you are a potential foreign threat as a potential candidate – or potential MLA or MP or mayor – is a Google search,” said Mr. Allam. He managed the campaign for Ken Sim, who won election last year as Vancouver’s first mayor of Chinese descent.
“Everyone should be concerned,” Mr. Allam said. “We are a country that has laws that have many holes in them that need to be filled.” It is, he said, “an issue of Canada not being able to ensure its sovereignty.”
Mr. Kim defeated incumbent mayor Kennedy Stewart, who drew criticism from the Chinese government for suspending meetings with its diplomats and strengthening ties with Taiwan. He lost to Mr. Sim by nearly 37,000 votes, and while he does not believe foreign influence caused that loss, he told The Globe that he believes he was a target of Chinese government interference.
Mr. Sim has denounced what he calls “insinuations” against him, describing them as rooted in racism. But he said this week that he cannot comment on the seriousness of the foreign-interference threat to his city, saying “I’m just the mayor of Vancouver.”
At an event in Guelph Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said allegations that a foreign country is interfering in elections “at any level need to be taken seriously.” But he expressed concern that leaks of CSIS reports could “undermine the ability of the duly-elected mayor of Vancouver to do this job, to undermine people in Vancouver’s faith in the integrity of their elections.”
“That’s why we have to be careful about respecting national security when we talk about allegations like this that are leaked out,” he said.
But Mr. Poilievre, the Conservative Leader, said the CSIS leaks about Chinese meddling in last fall’s municipal election and the 2019 and 2021 federal elections show that the Trudeau government has lost the confidence of the intelligence community.
“There is an open revolt against the Prime Minister,” Mr. Poilievre said in Vancouver. “Our intelligence community is very worried about what the Prime Minister is covering up and keeping secret. "
The CSIS documents have brought to the fore an issue that has long troubled people like Mr. Allam, who briefly served as Mr. Sim’s chief of staff, but is no longer employed by the city of Vancouver.
In an interview, Mr. Allam called foreign interference a concern that he has encountered throughout his career, grappling with Canadian shortcomings that have been left unaddressed since the Cold War. “There are a lot of state-sponsored efforts to influence Canadian policymaking,” he said.
The mandate for CSIS, he said, constrains what it can do outside of gathering information.
As a country, “right now, we don’t have any arbiter of what’s good behaviour or what’s acceptable behaviour and not acceptable. And we have no tools to investigate and really dig into how systemic that influence is or isn’t,” he said. “And it’s not just China that we should be concerned about.”
There needs to be some avenue, he said, for those in politics to seek advice from intelligence agencies on whether an individual poses any reason for concern.
It’s a concept that raises its own questions.
“Would you have CSIS reviewing every candidate? That would be an incursion into our political system,” said Mark Marissen, a Liberal political strategist who ran in the 2022 Vancouver mayoral election, finishing fourth.
“If we start being distrustful of everybody in society because of some allegations like this, it could have really dangerous consequences,” he said.
But tangible change can be made without expanding the powers of the security state, said Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and a former national-security analyst.
She pointed to the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security. It was opened in 2018 as part of the Communications Security Establishment, but with a mandate – and funding – to deliver information to the public.
“That’s the model,” Prof. Carvin said.
“We need something like a Cyber Centre for foreign interference.”
Canada, she said, has a long history of playing down the importance of intelligence. CSIS can collect information, but can’t hand it to the RCMP. Federal intelligence is often not shared with provincial authorities. And with no body akin to the National Security Council in the U.S., she said, “we have no institution in Canada that pushes intelligence up into decision-making.”
Making those sorts of changes are “very doable,” she said.
In Ottawa, however, Canada’s political leaders continue to fight over what has already taken place, with Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Poilievre trading barbs this week over the appointment of Mr. Johnston as special rapporteur.
The Prime Minister said the Conservatives under Mr. Poilievre are “engaging in horrific partisan attacks against a man of extraordinary integrity.”
The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois have pointed out that Mr. Johnston has had a decades-long friendship with the Trudeau family.
The Prime Minister said Mr. Johnston has “unimpeachable integrity” and will receive security clearances to look into everything “our spies and intelligence analysts are saying,” and “to dig in what the government did or didn’t do. "
Mr. Trudeau has rejected opposition efforts to summon his chief of staff, Katie Telford, before a House of Commons committee investigating Beijing election interference.
In an attempt to get around a Liberal filibuster, the Conservatives plan to present an opposition-day motion in the Commons next week to require Ms. Telford to testify. The motion would need the support of the Bloc and NDP to pass in the minority Parliament.
“It’s time for her to come forward and honestly testify about what happened,” Mr. Poilievre said. “She would have been aware of all the briefings that the intelligence bodies would have been provided. She knows all the secrets.”