In an episode of the hit TV show How I Met Your Mother, one of the characters drily explains that “the Eighties didn’t come to Canada until, like, ’93.” Today, Canadian cultural delay remains in full force. Just this year, the American 2016 presidential election seems to have finally arrived up north. This time, it is foreign interference by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at issue. The Chinese have targeted America’s largest trading partner, our partner in continental air defense, and a founding member of NATO. Americans should take notice.
As any American who even remotely paid attention to Russia’s efforts to sow chaos in the 2016 election can attest, the fog of foreign interference is disconcerting and frightening. While recent studies have suggested that these efforts did not sway a critical mass of voters, they did succeed in causing a significant portion of the American population to doubt the legitimacy of the Trump administration. Now, it’s Canada’s turn in the barrel.
Since February, Canadians have been treated to a constant stream of damning reports, spurred by a source in the Canadian intelligence services, suggesting that Canada has been the target of a widespread effort to affect elections at the federal, provincial, and local levels. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ordered two separate, albeit closed-door, investigations into China’s chicanery—although both the Tories and Trudeau’s governing coalition partner, the New Democracy Party, have argued that this is insufficient.
The allegations are as salacious as they are troubling: explicit Chinese involvement in defeating targeted candidates, including cash donations and Russian-style disinformation campaigns, in both the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. China’s aims in 2021 were allegedly to secure a chaotic minority government led by, but not dominated by, the Liberal Party. While a review conducted by the former chairman of the Pierre Trudeau Foundation—which itself has been embroiled in a scandal wrought by revelations it received CA$140,000 from a donor backstopped by the PRC—claimed the results were unaffected by China’s activity, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole estimates that the Chinese activity may have scuppered eight or nine Tory victories.
More recent revelations are just as shocking. China’s diplomatic mission in Vancouver conducted candidate recruitment efforts ahead of the city’s most recent local elections. Worse, it appears that the Trudeau government knew that a Chinese diplomat operating in Toronto was targeting the Hong Kong-based family members of Michael Chong, the current shadow foreign affairs minister, and failed to notify Chong or expel the PRC's man from the country. (After this failure became public, the Canadian government did expel the diplomat, Zhao Wei, spurring China to expel a Canadian diplomat in turn.)
One of the alleged targets of China’s efforts, Kenny Chiu, just happened to be the champion of a foreign agents’ registration bill. (Canada, unlike the United States, does not require political influencers in the pay of foreign governments to register and report activities on behalf of their paymasters.) One of the alleged beneficiaries of Beijing’s largesse, Han Dong, purportedly urged a Chinese diplomat not to release two Canadian citizens being held hostage by the PRC because doing so would benefit the Conservative Party. (Dong, who has left the Liberal bench to become an independent, hotly denies these allegations and has filed suit against the Canadian media outlet that has reported it.)
That these events were set in motion by a source in the Canadian intelligence services is also disquieting. It could be—as the leaker him/herself suggested in the pages of the Globe and Mail—that the appropriate political agents have been hesitant to take action against Beijing’s shenanigans, perhaps unwilling to forgo the possible political rewards. But at this juncture, it could just as easily be the case that profane, not patriotic motives were at issue. Given that Canada is a crucial intelligence partner of the United States through the Five Eyes arrangement, neither option is a good ingredient to toss into the boiling cauldron bubbling on our northern border.
As you might expect, this is just the beginning. Trudeau’s chief of staff has testified in Parliament, albeit in a more limited capacity than desired by the opposition, about how the government learned of China’s interference. And at the end of May, a special rapporteur appointed by Trudeau will make a recommendation on whether the two secret reviews are sufficient—or whether a public inquiry (think something north of the Mueller investigation and south of the January 6th Committee in terms of publicity) is necessary.
As a rule, the American public tends not to pay attention to the vagaries of Canadian politics. This benign neglect may be unsustainable going forward. Americans do not generally recognize how deeply intertwined we are with Canada’s political and economic system for the same reason that fish do not think about why the water is wet. But a loss of public faith in Canada’s electoral system could spark a significant and unsalutary crisis in Ottawa—just as Russian interference did here. Such instability could echo through the U.S.-Canadian relationship.
Furthermore, we should keep in mind that hostile foreign powers will undoubtedly seek to replicate whatever elements of China’s Canadian playbook appear promising, including in our own election next year. This is unlikely to be an isolated incident. While there is still time, the United States needs to get on the same page with our North American cousins and confront these threats together going forward.
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.