As reports of alleged Chinese interference in the last two federal elections stack up, MPs on the House of Commons committee examining foreign election interference will be hearing from some of Canada’s highest-ranking intelligence officials on Wednesday.
The Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) will be meeting at 3 p.m. even though MPs are not sitting this week, to hear from a list of federal witnesses including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s National Security and Intelligence Adviser Jody Thomas, foreign affairs associate deputy minister Cindy Termorshuizen, and public safety deputy minister Shawn Tupper.
Following that trio, members of the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force will appear, including CSIS director general of intelligence assessments Adam Fisher, RCMP executive director of intelligence and international policing Adriana Poloz, and the Communication Security Establishment’s (CSE) deputy chief of signals intelligence, Alia Tayyeb.
It’s expected these witnesses will be prodded by members of Parliament for information about what they know about attempts by China to meddle in and influence Canada’s democratic process and what they advised Trudeau of in this regard, but given it’s a public meeting and the issue concerns highly sensitive information, it remains to be seen how detailed their responses will be.
Over the last several years Canadian security agencies have been warning governments and citizens of increasingly sophisticated efforts from foreign states to interfere in Canadian affairs, though over the last few months media reports, including those citing unnamed CSIS sources, have raised questions around specific alleged attempts to meddle in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
For example, The Globe and Mail has reported that China used a “sophisticated strategy” to defeat Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing while attempting to get the Liberals re-elected in 2021, an effort defeated former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu told CTV News he thinks he was a target of.
Global News has reported that China allegedly interfered in the 2019 campaigns of some candidates, including Liberal Han Dong who the news outlet reported CSIS believed was a “witting affiliate” of Chinese influence networks, and that the spy agency told the Prime Minister’s Office to rescind his nomination. Dong has strongly denied these claims, and CTV News has not independently verified either outlets’ reporting.
Trudeau has also sought to cast doubt on some of what’s been reported—including that CSIS would provide advice to the prime minister on a political issue—while questioning the claims’ impacts on Canadians’ confidence in democratic institutions. He has also repeatedly pointed to assurances from SITE, an election interference monitoring body that has offered assurances that “the integrity of our elections was not compromised.”
“National security agencies saw attempts at foreign interference, but not enough to have met the threshold of impacting electoral integrity,” reads the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol’s report into the 2021 campaign, released Tuesday.
PM RESISTING CALLS FOR INQUIRY
So far, Trudeau has resisted calls from the opposition parties for a public inquiry amid increasing demands for the federal government to be transparent about what top elections integrity bodies and security agencies knew about allegations that specific MPs or candidates were targeted by China.
Differing views are emerging among Canada’ intelligence community on whether an independent public inquiry or a probe by the top-secret and multi-party National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) would be best to get to the bottom of the various reports, in an effort to fully assess the foreign meddling allegations and any potential impact on Canada’s democratic institutions.
Trudeau told reporters earlier this week that, in addition to the ongoing work of PROC, he’s “hopeful” that NSICOP embarks on a study into how to continue to strengthen Canada’s electoral systems and guard against interference, which has recently been noted coming from both foreign and domestic actors.
“Canadians do want to hear directly from independent experts on the safety, the stability, the security of our elections and of our democratic processes despite the ongoing attempts at interference,” Trudeau said. “It is extremely important… that Canadians see that this is open, transparent, non-partisan, independent. Because we’re all concerned and worried about our elections’ integrity. That’s why we have put in place mechanisms, why we continue to see hearings on this.”
Richard Fadden, a former CSIS director and national security adviser to the prime minister, told CTV News earlier this week that there are precedents in Canada for commissions of inquiry to be able to receive classified information, and given the work the Public Order Emergency Commission has just completed under Justice Paul Rouleau, he’s in favour of that approach.
“I think we need something that will be as open as possible and as objective as possible. I understand there’s a parliamentary committee looking at this right now, but I think it’s actually unfair to ask MPs who are by definition partisan, to look at this issue totally objectively,” Fadden said on CTV News Channel’s Power Play on Monday. “I think what is at stake is the confidence of Canadians and the integrity of our political system, of our electoral system.”
While former CSIS director Ward Elcock thinks NSCIOP would be better suited than a royal commission to take this work on, he said the government also needs to shake the perception that it hasn’t done anything with the information that’s been made public.
“I think the government has got to find a way to take some kind of action that in fact would demonstrate that it is using the information available to take action to deal with these issues rather than simply letting it drift,” he said.
For now, the matter is primarily before PROC, which has a mandate to review and report on the election of members to the House of Commons, and has been studying the issue of foreign election interference since November.
Wednesday’s meeting and its stacked witness list is the result of MPs unanimously voting to expand its study to cover the last two federal elections and call additional cabinet ministers and federal security and elections officials to testify, given the recent reporting and opposition MPs increasing concerns about the Liberal government’s transparency surrounding potential foreign meddling.
Calls continue from the Conservatives to further grow the committee’s witness list.
“Each allegation in this developing story on Chinese Communist Party election interference is more shocking than the last,” said Conservative MP Michael Cooper in a recent statement. “But with these latest reports from the media, Justin Trudeau and his government can no longer run or hide from these allegations… It is crucial for confidence in our democracy that we know what Justin Trudeau and his government knew and when.”
Echoing this, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet suggested Wednesday that he’d like to see Trudeau testify.
“At what point did the prime minister know? I think we need to ask these questions, and ask them to him as well,” he said in French during a scrum on Parliament Hill ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.