With his government under fire over claims that China meddled in the 2019 and 2021 votes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced a suite of investigations into foreign election interference.

Trudeau told a news conference Monday evening he will ask the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), one of the country’s intelligence watchdogs, to look into foreign attempts to interfere in elections and report its findings and recommendations to Parliament.

He also asked the committee, made up of senators and MPs, to review the classified evaluation of the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol — the panel of senior civil servants tasked with notifying Canadians of any incident or incidents that threatened the integrity of the 2021 election.

Trudeau said he also will ask the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), another of Canada’s oversight agencies, to review how Canada’s national security agencies handled the threat of foreign interference during elections, with a particular focus on the flow of information from national security agencies.

NSIRA is an independent and external review body that reviews all national security and intelligence activities to ensure that they are “lawful, reasonable and necessary.” NSIRA will also report its findings to Parliament.

Trudeau also announced that, in the coming days, he will appoint an independent special rapporteur to provide recommendations “on all options of further steps that could be taken to ensure confidence in our democracy, while protecting national security.”

“Together, these measures will give us a better understanding of what happened in the last two elections, how foreign governments tried to interfere, how security agencies in Canada responded to the threat of interference and how the information flowed across government,” Trudeau told the press conference Monday.

Later this week, he added, the government will launch public consultations on creating what he called a “foreign influence transparency registry.”

Trudeau said the government wants to keep those who advocate on behalf of foreign governments accountable while protecting communities that often are targeted by attempts at foreign interference.

The U.S. and Australia have foreign agent registries that require those acting on behalf of foreign states to register their activities. 

CSIS Director David Vigneault has said that while such a registry wouldn’t be the only tool needed, it would be a useful measure to improve transparency.

The government also promises to:

  • Develop a plan to implement any outstanding recommendations from NSICOP, NSIRA and the independent assessment of the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol within the next 30 days.
  • Invest $5.5 million to form an alliance of civil society partners to fact-check and counter disinformation.

Trudeau’s announcement comes during a heated debate in Ottawa about how to handle the issue. 

Opposition calling for a public inquiry 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre have been pushing the idea of an open inquiry on foreign election interference.

Some critics argue, however, that national security would prevent a public inquiry from having open access to all government information.

Taking questions on Monday, Singh said an in-camera portion is standard for inquiries. 

“So there are certain things that may be so important that we don’t want it in the public discourse because it could undermine the work of our agencies. That’s understandable,” he said.

“That is a normal course of action, given we’re a G7 nation … We don’t want countries to know the details of how our spy agency is operating or the resources that we have.”

Singh said an independent person should decide when to take the discussion behind closed doors. 

Prime Minister Trudeau has not said for certain whether he supports a public inquiry.

Fred Delorey, who ran the Conservatives’ 2021 federal campaign, told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics last week that an inquiry into alleged foreign election meddling would be “very challenging.”

“A public inquiry would be great political theatre. It would be a lot of fun, it would be great television,” Delorey said. “But I don’t know what we’d actually get.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to Liberal Party supporters at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg. © Jaison Empson/CBC Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to Liberal Party supporters at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg.

Delorey and others have suggested the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), a special committee that includes both MPs and senators with top security clearance, would be the best venue for an investigation.

Singh said he’d still like to see a public inquiry.

“We want the public to know that we’re taking steps to assess exactly what happened, how broad this is, and then take steps to recommend how we can prevent this from happening in the future,” said Singh.

“That should be the goal.”

Poilievre says he’s not open to a secret briefing 

During a separate news conference Monday, Poilievre was asked if he would be open to receiving a high-level briefing from intelligence services, instead of a public inquiry.

“No, that’s a trick and that’s a trap,” he said.

“We’re not going to have a situation where Conservatives are told that they have to be quiet about this scandal because they’re sworn to secrecy. We need a public inquiry that is truly independent, to get to the bottom of it.”

Poilievre has said a public inquiry should be chaired by someone who is acceptable to all political parties to ensure its independence.

The push for a public inquiry comes in response to recent reports detailing allegations of Chinese interference in Canada’s elections.

Back in the fall, Global News reported intelligence officials warned Trudeau that China’s consulate in Toronto floated cash to at least eleven federal election candidates “and numerous Beijing operatives” who worked as campaign staffers.

Last month, the Globe and Mail reported that China employed a “sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy” in the 2021 election campaign as Chinese diplomats and their proxies “backed the re-election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.”

RCMP investigating leaks to media

A panel of public servants tasked with monitoring incidents did not detect foreign interference that threatened Canada’s ability to hold free and fair elections in either the 2019 and 2021 elections. But the panel did say there were attempts to interfere in both campaigns, according to reports highlighting its work.

On Monday, the RCMP confirmed it’s started an investigation into violations of the Security of Information Act related to leaks of government information about foreign election interference shared with media outlets.

The act is designed to safeguard and protect Canada’s most secret information.

“This investigation is not focused on any one security agency,” said RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival.

“As the RCMP is investigating these incidents, there will be no further comment on this matter at this time.”

The RCMP says it wasn’t able to launch a criminal investigation into allegations of foreign interference in the 2021 election because it did not receive actionable intelligence.

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