Whatever happened in 2019 and 2021, China has succeeded in starting a political frenzy


“These are serious allegations that need to be treated seriously,” NDP House leader Peter Julian said during an appearance on CBC’s Power & Politics on Monday.

Given that Julian said so while relaying his party’s call for a public inquiry into allegations of Chinese foreign interference in Canadian elections, it seems fair to assume he doesn’t see Parliament as a place where serious allegations can be handled seriously.

And maybe he’s right about that — even if it’s a particularly disappointing admission in the midst of what is supposed to be a discussion about maintaining public trust in Canada’s democratic institutions.

There is certainly a need for seriousness at this moment. Because whatever China tried to do, it has succeeded in triggering a political and media feeding frenzy that threatens to do some real damage to Canadian democracy, regardless of what the truth might be.

It’s important to note that an independent panel of five senior public servants, working with Canada’s national security agencies, did not find interference that affected Canada’s ability to hold free and fair elections in 2019 and 2021.

No serious voice is saying that those elections were decisively affected by foreign malfeasance. Asked by reporters on Wednesday whether he accepted the results of the last federal election, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said he did.

The current furor is instead based on two separate, but related, questions. To what extent was China able to covertly interfere in the Canadian democratic process before and during the 2019 and 2021 elections? And did the Trudeau government fail to respond appropriately to any attempts to interfere?

The Conservatives cry ‘cover-up’

It’s the second question, of course, that generates the most excitement. The Conservatives have gone so far as to allege a “cover-up.” But it remains unclear — sometimes maddeningly so — whether such a scandal is actually present here.

A report authored by a former senior public servant — commissioned by the Trudeau government late last year and released yesterday — states plainly that “CSIS is concerned about foreign interference, including by the Communist Party of China” and “CSIS expressed concerns that China notably tried to target elected officials to promote their national interests and encouraged individuals to act as proxies on their behalf.” (The Conservatives preemptively decided that the author, who was CEO of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation after leaving the public service, lacks credibility.)

That report adds to the findings released by a committee of parliamentarians in early 2020.

But government officials simply have not accounted fully for the claims outlined in a recent series of media reports. The allegations and accounts that have been leaked to reporters are certainly part of some kind of story, but the rest of story is still unknown.

The prime minister and his government have explicitly denied two reported claims: that the prime minister was briefed about allegations that China provided funding to candidates, and that CSIS urged the Prime Minister’s Office to rescind a Liberal candidate’s nomination. They also have alluded broadly to other unspecified “inaccuracies” in the reports.

WATCH: National security adviser Jody Thomas answers questions about election interference

Trudeau’s national security adviser attends hearing on election interference

Jody Thomas says China poses the greatest threat of interference in Canadian elections.

Jody Thomas, a public servant who acts as national security adviser to the prime minister, was similarly cryptic. In her opening statement Wednesday to a committee of MPs studying foreign election inference, she said that “individual reports, when taken out of context, may be incomplete and misrepresentative of the full story.” When discussing interference, she seemed to stress the word “attempts,” as if to imply that what is tried is not always successful.

When asked about one specific allegation, Thomas said that “the intelligence that backs it up is more complex than is probably evident in the single clip or piece of that report that’s been revealed in the media.”

She also noted that information about criminal actions can be referred to the RCMP. Another government official then confirmed that the RCMP is not actively investigating any allegations related to the last election.

But such comments, however interesting, are not going to be nearly enough to assuage concerns about China’s actions or the federal government’s response.

WATCH: ‘Multiple processes’ looking into election interference, Trudeau says

‘Multiple processes’ are looking into foreign election interference: Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says security agencies are using various tools to investigate alleged foreign election interference.

This government is not particularly fond of (or good at) explaining itself in a straightforward manner, even when it doesn’t seem to have anything to hide. And both government and security officials are also quick to say that they are severely limited in what they can say when it comes to classified intelligence.

But what’s needed in this situation — and in all cases where the credibility of Canadian democracy is being questioned — is something like radical transparency. For the sake of either accountability or reassurance — or both — there needs to be a serious attempt to account for the claims that have been made and repeated. And that need will only increase if there are more leaks and anonymous allegations.

Do we need a public inquiry?

The swift demands for a public inquiry likely owe something to the recent experience of Justice Paul Rouleau’s investigation into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act. Those hearings broke through the bog standard opacity of government and offered real transparency — so much so that it became tempting to wish everything could be subject to such sober and serious examination.

A public inquiry could explore the full gamut of threats of foreign election manipulation by looking at China as well as a half-dozen other bad actors. But existing institutions — like the commissioner of elections (who pursues violations of the Elections Act), the RCMP, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) — should be up to the task of getting at the specific questions feeding the current frenzy.

NSICOP, a special committee that includes both MPs and senators, was created by the Trudeau government six years ago to allow parliamentarians to review classified information and report publicly on their findings. It was the committee that produced that 2020 report on foreign interference — a report that had the misfortune of being released on March 12 of that year, just days before the world crashed to a halt.

NSICOP could be the right venue for a deep investigation of what China did or didn’t do in the last two elections.

It’s fair to say that normal House of Commons committees have shown themselves lately to be incapable of seriousness. But there is also hope for this week’s hearings. On Thursday, the procedure and House affairs committee is set to hear from another eight witnesses, including CSIS director David Vigneault.

Substantive answers would go a long way toward demonstrating that Canada’s political system is capable of dealing seriously with a threat that ultimately aims to undermine democracy itself.

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