Unless its wildfires cause the skies in New York City to turn the color of a sci-fi dystopia, Americans tend not to think much about Canada. But you know who has not forgotten about our neighbor to the north? China’s ruler, Xi Jinping.
As part of China’s unfriendly competition with the West, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman appears to have overseen a far-reaching and complicated effort to advance Beijing’s interests through direct interference in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
Those elections were conducted amidst a hostage crisis. In 2018, China kidnapped two Canadian nationals in response to Ottawa’s decision to detain the chief financial officer of Huawei at the Trump administration’s request. Public reporting suggests the People’s Republic of China’s covert operations were aimed at defeating anti-Chinese candidates for office, “grooming” future political stars in the Vancouver municipal elections, and securing a government led by Justin Trudeau—but a weakened one, reliant on minor parties for confidence and supply (as it happened, the actual result).
The rest of the world only knows about these distressing allegations due to an anonymous source in the Canadian intelligence services, whose identity and true motivations remain unknown. But if these allegations are even remotely true, it would do more than merely rock the Trudeau government; it would be yet another data point that China is embarking on a full-spectrum drive against the democratic West, including by targeting Western publics. To put it mildly, more than Canadian interests are at stake in getting to answers.
At first, it seemed as if we all might soon get clarity. The prime minister ordered two closed-door probes into Chinese chicanery, and then appointed an independent special rapporteur to conduct his own review and make a determination on whether to hold a public inquiry. This is a robust process where a commission is imbued with authoritative power (including subpoena authority and the ability to call witnesses) to pursue a mission of public enlightenment on a thorny and vital issue. Given that the most troubling allegations of Chinese interference seemed to hew in the direction of benefitting Trudeau’s Liberals, such an approach seemed amply warranted and was generally expected.
Despite not having a parliamentary system, we Americans know the value of such independent commissions. After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, President George W. Bush and Congress agreed to empanel a bipartisan commission to ferret out answers as to how such a horror could have happened. A body so composed and with such a writ, backed by the ability to take testimony and issue subpoenas, was the right call. The 9/11 Commission proceeded to ultimately put together both the definitive history of the attacks and a series of substantive recommendations for precluding future mass casualty terror in America. More than Americans benefited from this process—the entire civilized world was better informed about the Al Qaeda threat as a result.
Bush could have taken a different path—indeed, the president was initially resistant to an independent review. The White House could have insisted on an executive branch investigation instead, perhaps headed by a luminary and family friend such as James A. Baker III. The administration could have assured Congress that Baker would issue regular public reports and hold public hearings, notwithstanding his lack of power to issue compulsory process or to compel testimony.
This hypothetical Baker review could have been couched as being necessary to preserve executive privilege and to avoid the unnecessary difficulty of discussing classified information in a public forum. Such a review would have undoubtedly come under intense criticism, and even if it had reached the same conclusions as the 9/11 Commission, likely would never have achieved purchase as an authoritative account.
Such a “family friend review” is precisely the approach that the Canadian government initially took—with possibly even worse results than might have met a hypothetical “Baker inquiry.” Trudeau appointed David Johnston as special rapporteur. Johnston is a former governor-general, ski-trip companion and friend of Trudeau’s father, and recent associate of the Pierre Trudeau Foundation, an entity which—astoundingly—has just been embroiled in a CCP-backed donation scandal. Nor did Johnston take steps to improve this appearance of bias. Instead, he employed as his right hand a lawyer with a donation history to the Liberal Party, secured crisis management services from the same company assisting former Liberal memeber of parliament Han Dong (who was named in one of the more salacious allegations of this l’affaire Cathay), and appears to have failed to interview former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole until after he had already principally drafted his initial report on the crisis.
That report, issued at the end of May, more or less dismissed the public allegations, exonerated the Trudeau government of direct knowledge or wrongdoing, and concluded, despite conceding that Chinese interference existed, that the government should not open a public inquiry into China’s attack on Canada. (Johnston cited the difficulty of discussing classified information in such an inquiry.) By declining to ask for a public inquiry, Johnston ensured that he would remain in control of the government’s public-facing review of China’s election interference. Unsurprisingly, Johnston’s report was quite expectedly received as if the rapporteur was merely providing top cover for the government.
The opposition parties in Parliament—including the left-wing New Democracy Party that holds the balance of power—reacted fast and furious. Johnston was hauled into Commons for a three-hour grilling—which suggested a potentially serious gap between the facts about Chinese targeting of the Tories in 2021 and the content of his report. The Commons also passed a non-binding motion that he be replaced and a public inquiry be opened. Polling found that nearly 60 percent of Canadians disagreed with Johnston on the question—the public demanded a public inquiry.
Johnston and Trudeau initially resisted the backlash, but ultimately, the special rapporteur resigned on Friday. The next day, the government signaled that it was now open to a public inquiry. Chinese political espionage against Canada may yet get the public airing and exacting review that it deserves. And the American people will also benefit from such a course.
Perhaps Xi views Canada as a proving ground for tactics that might be wielded in the 2024 U.S. presidential election, or as a soft underbelly into Five Eyes, or simply as a democratic roadblock to his dream of creating a “Community of Common Destiny for All-Mankind.” The United States needs to know—preferably without relying on decontextualized leaks from our intelligence partner spilling over onto the pages of the Globe and Mail and filtering down into the American media ecosystem.
The scale, scope, and intentions of the Chinese government’s covert electoral operations against our ally’s political system matter, both in terms of truly understanding Beijing’s ambitions and figuring out how to re-establish deterrence against such operations there, here, and throughout the Western democracies. A public inquiry—a “9/11 Commission” for Canada—will have the salutary side effect of helping the American people know what they are up against as they politically organize and associate with one another throughout civil society.
Because we can be sure of one thing: what happens to Ottawa will not stay in Ottawa.
Zac Morgan is an attorney specializing in First Amendment and campaign finance law. He previously worked for the Institute for Free Speech, and currently serves as counsel to Commissioner Allen Dickerson of the Federal Election Commission.
The views expressed in this article are his own and do not express an official view of the U.S. government.