Canada Releases Report on Chinese Election Interference

Canada Releases Report on Chinese Election Interference

The Foreign Interference Commission details Beijing’s attempts to influence Canada’s 2019 and 2021 parliamentary elections.

Imagine, if you will, the United States of America fifteen minutes or fifteen years into the future. 

The country is at a fever pitch, thanks to public hearings of a bipartisan, bicameral, independent commission that has slowly vetted allegations sparked by a series of leaks from the intelligence community to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal suggesting Chinese meddling in the last two election cycles. Having heard in camera and public testimony from failed candidates of both parties, Chinese-American state legislators warning that their overseas family members were not safe, spokesmen for sundry diaspora groups, and a retired, dyspeptic House minority leader, the inquiry’s preliminary stage closes quite dramatically—with four hours of live-streamed testimony from the incumbent President of the United States.

A Netflix drama? Not at all. Indeed, something very much like that scenario is playing out right now in the sister democracy on America’s own northern borderCanada. Developments in this story include salacious intelligence leaks to The Globe and Mail by a source whose identity remains unknown, the convening of a formal public inquiry helmed by Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, and even live testimony from the head of government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

On May 3, 2024, the public inquiry, also known simply as the Foreign Interference Commission, issued its interim report, which had been initially slated for release last February. A follow-up report with recommendations and, perhaps, additional findings is scheduled to be made public in December

While Justice Hogue is at pains to note that “the factual findings that I have made in this report are only preliminary” and subject to review as the Commission considers additional information and evidence, her report serves as the first significant non-leak-driven or non-media-driven review of hostile foreign interference against Canada. As such, it is well worth taking stock of the Commission’s interim findings.

One concern with the Commission was that, despite having the remit to review foreign interference in the last two federal elections (2019 and 2021), the terms of reference for Justice Hogue’s inquiry strayed too far from focusing on the nation-state fingered in the intelligence leaks, the People’s Republic of China. However, fears that Hogue’s report would be diluted in its focus have, thus far, been overblown. 

Instead, despite keeping to her more wide-ranging mission (including uncovering a scheme by India to funnel cash to preferred candidates), she states that “China has been assessed by Canadian authorities as the most active foreign state actor engaged in interference directed at government officials, political organizations, candidates for political office[,] and diaspora communities” and that the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (“CSIS”) “views China as the biggest threat to the Canadian electoral space by a significant margin.”

The Commission’s review suggests that Beijing’s targeting comes via “a range of tools, including Canada-based proxies,” and “the monitoring of diaspora communities and [the use of] transnational repression; activities meant to impact the outcome of Canadian democratic processes (including providing financial support to preferred candidates); and clandestinely shaping narratives in support of PRC strategic interests.” 

In doing so, the Hogue report concludes that “[t]he PRC does not support any particular party, but rather supports outcomes that it views as pro-PRC, regardless of the political affiliation of a particular candidate.” In support of this instrumentalist view, the Commission cites “intelligence reporting” that “[i]n 2019…indicated that PRC officials in Canada expressed political preferences at a riding level that were party-agnostic and that, more broadly, changed based on the ongoing PRC-related positions of different political parties during the campaign” while “[i]n 2021, there was reporting that some individual PRC officials in Canada expressed a preference for a minority Liberal government because they viewed minority governments as being more limited in terms of being able to enact anti-China policies.” In other words, China meddles in Canadian politics with a single-minded focus on advancing its agenda.

The Commission’s preliminary report is most conclusive on two significant points: (1) there is “no difficulty concluding that there was” foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections and (2) “the administration of the election was sound,” and the CCP’s chicanery did not “impact which party formed a government” following those elections.

Nevertheless, Justice Hogue concedes that the details complicate this clean narrative. Specifically, she could not rule in or out with any certainty that the CCP’s efforts bore fruit in individual constituencies. A few examples from the report demonstrate why. 

In 2019, PRC officials and “suspected PRC-related threat actors” made contact with a number of political candidates and staffers, “[s]ome of [whom]…appeared willing to cooperate in foreign interference-related activity while others appeared to be unaware of such activity due to its clandestine nature.” Possibly, as part of this scheme, $250,000 was distributed for political interference. Still, the report candidly concedes that it’s unclear what happened to the money other than that “there is no intelligence that the $250K went to any of the 11 candidates.” 

Likewise, the Commission suggests quite strongly that Chinese nationals were bused into a “chaotic” and tight nomination contest to vote for now-MP Han Dong in 2019. Moreover, the report posits that these students could well have been the tipping point in Mr. Dong’s securing nomination to the Liberal Party candidacy: “Some intelligence reported after the election indicated that veiled threats were issued by the PRC Consulate to the Chinese international students, implying their student visas would be in jeopardy and that there could be consequences for their families back in the PRC if they did not support Han Dong.” 

Frustratingly, however, the interim report cannot go further than bruiting about the Canadian intelligence community’s allegations, noting that “It is not the mandate of this Commission to determine what actually took place at the Don Valley North nomination meeting in 2019...”

As for 2021, Hogue’s report zeroes in on two possible “complementary” disinformation campaigns on “Chinese-language social media” that were plausibly “orchestrated or directed by the PRC,” one targeting the Conservative Party generally and another aimed at Kenny Chiu, the sponsor of a bill to create a foreign agents’ registry in Canada, who was subsequently defeated at the polls. 

Obviously, the Commission could not draw a line between the existence of the allegedly Chinese effort and any election result. Voters ignore political messaging and disinformation from domestic actors all the time, and it stands to reason that they will not automatically fall for targeted ones engineered by hostile foreign adversaries. 

As the American experience in 2016 demonstrated, just because a hostile foreign power conducts political warfare supportive of one candidate, it does not mean the adversary was persuasive. Nor, of course, does that make the foreign interference remotely acceptable or worth merely absorbing.

Justice Hogue concludes that the interference undermined faith in the legitimacy of the Canadian political process—“perhaps the greatest harm Canada has suffered as a result” in the absence of firm evidence that Beijing flipped any seats. She continued that it is vital that “the government work hard to re-establish Canadians’ trust in their democratic institutions by informing them of the threat of foreign interference, and by taking real and concrete steps to detect, deter, and counter it.” As the Commission notes, the “impact” of Chinese political warfare against Ottawa “has likely been slight to date, but may become more severe in the future.”

Additionally, the Commission noted an additional collateral risk. Specifically, the interim report notes that there is a real concern that “Foreign interference can also impact how candidates engage with their communities or how policy proposals are put forward and defended.” Or, as Mehmet Tohti, a Uyghur-Canadian activist, put it before the Commission in a public hearing, the parties may be learning “the wrong message…If you talk about China, there will be a consequence. You lose [the] election.” 

The Commission’s final report will hopefully shed further light on these whisps of intelligence and provide useful, concrete steps that Canada and other Western liberal democracies can utilize to stave off future Chinese-backed election-targeted political warfare. With every member of the Five Eyes community scheduled to have an election over the next two years, we need all the advice and best practices on offer. 

One messy public inquiry into Beijing’s election operations is already too many. Let’s avoid an American adaptation of this particular Canadian show.

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.

Image: Paparazzza /