Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be naming an independent special rapporteur who will have a “wide mandate” and make expert recommendations on combatting interference and strengthening Canada’s democracy.
Trudeau made the announcement on Monday evening, as part of a suite of new measures aimed at addressing Canadians’ concerns over alleged election meddling by China.
The prime minister is also referring the issue of foreign election interference back to a top-secret committee known as the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP).
This comes as opposition-led calls for the federal government to launch a public inquiry dominated the Commons’ return on Monday, with MP after MP rising in the House imploring the government to act and provide more openness around the issue.
Trudeau was not present to field these calls, but during Monday’s address he detailed in length the various efforts the Liberals have taken since 2015 to try to enhance Canada’s ability to detect, deter and combat interference, as well as a range of new measures coming.
It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to satiate the desires of the other parties to see a public inquiry called.
This stems from their cited desire for more Liberal openness around the story that’s been dominating headlines over the last few weeks: intelligence sources alleging in reports from The Globe and Mail and Global News that China interfered in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. The leaks are now under RCMP investigation.
Ahead of the news breaking, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speculated Trudeau’s “big announcement” would be outlining a “secretive process that will never bring about the truth.”
Both Poilievre and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Monday that they wouldn’t be able to get behind any process that’s lacking transparency, dismissing for example the idea of party leaders receiving secret briefings on classified material, which is not far off from how the NSICOP operates.
“That’s a trick, and that’s a trap,” Poilievre said. “So no, 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. What we need is a public inquiry that is truly independent to get to the bottom of it, all while continuing the parliamentary investigation.”
Similarly, Singh said he doesn’t think any new investigation be conducted behind closed doors, while refusing to commit to making a full public inquiry a red line for the fate of the Liberal-NDP confidence-and-supply agreement that Poilievre has taken to calling the “cover-up coalition.”
“This is something important that Canadians should have access to. Of course, there will be some information— given that it’s national security, given that there’ll be CSIS information— some of it may be required to be kept confidential. But the process should be public,” said Singh of his preferred inquiry structure.
Responding to Poilievre accusing the Liberals of trying to “sweep this under the rug,” during question period, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc accused him of doing “absolutely nothing” on the file when he was the minister responsible for democratic reform under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
“In 2013, CSIS identified foreign interference as a challenge in the electoral context. Mr. Harper’s former national security adviser raised this publicly in 2010, 13 years ago,” LeBlanc said. “And when my honourable friend was the minister responsible for this very file, he did absolutely nothing to deal with the question of foreign interference. I know he’s frustrated that we’ve done so much. And the good news Mr. Speaker, is we’ll continue to do more because we take this issue very seriously.”
WHAT IS THE NSICOP?
The high-level oversight body was created in 2017, and mirrors similar committees set up in the other “Five Eyes” alliance countries. Members include MPs and senators from major parties, who must have the highest level, or “top secret” security clearance.
The mandate of the committee is to act as the oversight body for Canada’s national security and intelligence agencies, including the activities of CSIS, the RCMP and the CBSA. The NSICOP reports to Trudeau, and then tables declassified versions of its findings in Parliament.
It has previously studied the threat foreign interference poses to Canada. In 2019, the committee issued a report calling the threat of foreign interference in Canada real, while flagging that the federal government needs to do more to counter what is a “significant and sustained” effort to meddle from China, Russia, and other state actors. Its report found the federal government slow to react to the threat of foreign interference, and called for a cross-government strategy.
Trudeau has repeatedly pointed to the NSICOP as a better venue than an inquiry for officials to consider sensitive security issues such as this, behind closed doors.
Former NSICOP member and retired senator Vern White told CTV News he thinks the NSICOP is a better place to examine these concerns than a public inquiry as it could delve deeper, report back faster, and do so in a way with enough nuance to communicate adequate information without infringing on national security.
White pointed to NSICOP’s past report on Trudeau’s troubled trip to India as an example.
“You can go back and read any of the reports… I don’t think there’s ever been complaints about people reading those reports [that] they could not glean enough intelligence and information out of them to know what happened,” White said. “There are things that can’t be disclosed and that are redacted. But, I think any public inquiry of this sort would also find a fair amount of the information gleaned would have to be redacted.”
HOW WOULD A PUBLIC INQUIRY DIFFER?
Last week, opposition MPs on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee passed a motion calling for the federal government to launch a national public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference broadly, including in Canadian elections.
This motion passed after hours of testimony from top intelligence officials who sought to assure that the integrity of Canada’s last two elections was upheld despite meddling attempts by China, while cautioning that they’d be limited in what more they could say in a public forum, pointing to the NSICOP as a better venue.
The opposition MPs want an inquiry to “go where the evidence takes it,” but also investigate the abuse of diaspora groups by hostile foreign governments.
The motion also outlined that an inquiry should have the power to compel relevant national security documents as well as call key government and political party figures to testify. And, they want the individual heading this inquiry to be unanimously selected by all recognized parties in the House of Commons.
While the motion is non-binding, once reported to the House the ball would be in Trudeau’s court as to whether he’d then take the committee’s advice and order an inquiry under Canada’s Inquiries Act. It’s possible that this route may not entirely be off the table.
Asked on Friday why he’s continuing to resist the calls for an inquiry, Trudeau said that while it’s important Canadians are taking an interest and showing concern about election interference and the longstanding concerns of foreign influence in Canadian institutions, independent officials have and continue to look at the issue.
“I absolutely hear that Canadians want to be reassured… They want to make sure that all the right questions are being posed of our intelligence and security agencies in a rigorous way to make sure they’re doing everything possible, and they want a level of public accountability from those officials,” Trudeau said. “All of those goals are related to processes that are ongoing as we speak.”
CHINESE CANADIANS WEIGH IN ON NEXT STEPS
Chinese Canadians are among those calling for more transparency, in lockstep with careful consideration of how those involved are communicating that the concern is with the People’s Republic of China.
Ryan Chan of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice recently told CTV News that he thinks “some form of inquiry that’s public, non-partisan, that would look into issues of foreign government interference” should be called, but expressed concern about the potential and misplaced backlash against Chinese Canadians in the process.
“I think first and foremost… we’re focused on this issue of kind of dispelling myths or, or at least giving full public insights into what is actually going on,” he said.
“We broadly support a public inquiry as long as it’s neutral, as long as it’s transparent, that would shed light on foreign governments’ influenced into whether or not it affects our domestic politics,” said Chan.
During last week’s committee hearings, both MPs and top intelligence witnesses made the point of emphasizing that, as CSIS Director David Vigneault put it, “the threat does not come from the Chinese people, but rather from the Chinese Communist Party and the government of China.”
Vigneault noted that Chinese-Canadian parliamentarians and Chinese Canadians are often the primary victims of the People’s Republic of China’s foreign interference efforts in Canada and federal intelligence bodies continue to put efforts towards building relationships with this community and its leaders to “establish and sustain trust.”
“It’s a very delicate thing to communicate when going after the Chinese government and what they’re doing, versus what Chinese Canadians are doing,” Bert Chen, a former Conservative national council member, told CTV News.
“And we have to be very precise about these discussions and its public discourse, because as a country of immigrants talking about a country that people may have come from, it’s a very delicate balance to communicate what the state is doing back in a home country, and what Canadians here are doing now.”
Cheuk Kwan, past chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, told CTV News that as a Chinese Canadian he doesn’t view raising questions about Chinese interference as racism, while noting that Chinese Canadians have for years been trying to draw attention to some of Beijing’s influence tactics.
“We are allowed to criticize China without being called racist… I think this is a normal way to deal with critics and, I believe that people are buying this line that that the CCP has been peddling all these years,” Kwan said. “We’re not dealing with denigrating Chinese people. Were just investigating a Chinese government, or any government for that matter.”
Some advocates have also voiced support for a foreign agent registry, as well as improved civic education and digital literacy resources as other actions that the federal government can take, in addition to as making it easier for members of the Chinese diaspora in Canada to flag to officials instances of political interference they experience.
“We need to rebuild that trust with the diaspora, allow them to safely come up their concerns, allow them to safely participate in any type of investigation or inquiry into any types of foreign interference,” said Cherie Wong, executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong.
“But I also believe that we need to take a country-agnostic, non-partisan and a cross-jurisdictional approach and looking at any type of foreign influence in Canadian elections.”
With files from CTV National News’ Judy Trinh and Glen McGregor