Trudeau Orders Probe of Alleged Chinese Interference in Canadian Election

REUTERS/Blair Gable/File Photo
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa February 17, 2023.

Trudeau orders probe of alleged Chinese interference in Canadian election

TORONTO – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that he would appoint an independent special rapporteur and order a committee of lawmakers with top-secret security clearance to probe foreign interference in Canada’s elections, amid criticism that his government is failing to take the issue seriously.

Intelligence agencies have long reported that foreign powers, including China and Russia, have sought to meddle in elections in Canada. But the matter has drawn renewed scrutiny – and has emerged as a political headache for Trudeau – in recent weeks after media reports about Chinese attempts to interfere in federal elections in 2019 and 2021.

“We all agree that upholding confidence in our democratic process, in our elections, in our institutions is of utmost importance,” Trudeau told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa. “This is not, and should never be, a partisan issue. I understand that people want answers, and Canadians deserve reassurance.”

The announcement marked a shift for Trudeau, who for weeks has defended his government’s handling of foreign election interference and has described the media reports as riddled with unspecified “inaccuracies.” But it fell short of the full public inquiry that opposition lawmakers had been calling for.

Trudeau said the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians would study the alleged interference and issue a report. The watchdog includes lawmakers with top-secret security clearance from all political parties and both houses of Parliament. It is sworn to secrecy about the intelligence it views, and its reports to the public redact sensitive material.

Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre on Monday dismissed the Trudeau government’s announcement as “a continuation of their coverup.”

“This is a secret committee, with secret hearings, secret evidence and secret conclusions – all controlled by the prime minister,” Poilievre said in a statement. “It will have neither the openness nor the independence to give Canadians the truth about Beijing’s interference in our politics and government.”

Not all Conservatives agree.

Fred DeLorey, the campaign manager for the Conservative Party in the 2021 election, wrote in the Toronto Star on Sunday that he had “serious reservations” about the effectiveness of a public inquiry and backed a probe by a committee of parliamentarians. He also wrote that the outcome of the 2021 vote “was not influenced by any external meddling.”

The Globe and Mail, citing anonymous intelligence sources and documents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, reported last month that Beijing had employed “a sophisticated strategy” in the 2021 federal election to disrupt elections with the aim of reelecting Trudeau’s Liberals and defeating specific Conservative candidates it considered hostile to China.

The article said the Chinese Communist Party preferred Trudeau’s Liberals over the Conservatives but saw the ideal outcome as another Liberal minority government. Such an outcome, analysts say, would be difficult for an outside party to manipulate. The documents also said Chinese diplomats boasted to Beijing about successfully defeating Conservative candidates.

Trudeau’s Liberals were reelected with a minority government in 2021. The Conservatives won the popular vote, but they failed to make inroads in Quebec or the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver, the battleground districts where elections are typically won or lost.

The Globe and Mail reported that the intelligence reports outlined several tactics employed by Beijing, including disinformation campaigns targeted at electoral districts with large mainland Chinese immigrant populations and undeclared cash donations funneled to candidates it considered friendly to China.

The newspaper reported that the documents were shared with senior government officials.

China’s embassy in Canada has dismissed the allegations as “pure slander and total nonsense.” Asked why he had not expelled any Chinese diplomats, Trudeau said Monday that “lack of evidence means we have not acted.”

A nonpartisan group of government officials published a report last week that said that while there were attempts to meddle in the 2021 vote, including by Russia, Iran and China, there was no evidence that foreign interference was of the “magnitude” of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or that it “met the threshold of impacting electoral integrity.”

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said last week that it was not investigating allegations of foreign election interference. It said Monday that it would investigate the intelligence leaks.

Trudeau came to power in 2015 looking to deepen ties with China. But relations soured after China detained two Canadians in 2018 in what was widely viewed as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a Huawei executive wanted in the United States on bank and wire fraud conspiracy charges.

The executive struck a deal with U.S. Justice Department officials in 2021 in which she acknowledged helping to conceal the technology giant’s direct dealings in Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions on the country. She returned to China.

The Canadians, who faced secret trials in China on vague espionage charges for which Beijing has never provided evidence, were released from prison the same day.