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OTTAWA — Canada's national approach to combating foreign interference rather than tackling it on a riding-by-riding basis was unfair to voters, former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole told a federal inquiry Wednesday — and he thinks it could even have cost him his job.

It quickly became clear to O'Toole on election night in 2021 that he was not about to become prime minister, but he was nonetheless startled by the disappointing results in a number of ridings, he testified.

His team had already flagged concerns about foreign interference in as many as nine ridings with the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force, which includes representatives from CSIS, RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and the Communications Security Establishment.

When the results for those ridings came in, turnout and Conservative support was far short ofwhat the party had expected to see based on their modelling, O'Toole said.

"The small number of seats would not have impacted the minority government that Canada has right now, but the difference of two, three, five seats may have allowed me more of a moral justification to remain as leader," he said.

O'Toole was one of several partisan witnesses taking the stand Wednesday at the federal commission of inquiry into foreign interference playing out in Ottawa.

A declassified intelligence report shown at the hearing drove home that O'Toole and the Conservative party were targets of Chinese interference efforts designed to promote false narratives online about the party's stance on China.

The commission expects to hear evidence that the intelligence community opted to take a national approach to foreign interference, focusing on the ultimate election result, rather than meddling that may have affected individual votes or ridings, the lawyer for Conservative MP Michael Chong said Wednesday.

Senior intelligence officials have told Parliament that both elections were fair and legitimate.

Canada's approach to combating foreign interference rather than tackling it on a riding-by-riding basis was unfair to voters, former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole told a federal inquiry Wednesday. And he thinks it could even have cost him his job.

"To suggest that an election is free and fair from foreign interference is not accurate if some people are impacted, whether or not it flipped the result in a riding, or in a few ridings. Each vote matters," O'Toole said in response.

He shared his view as part of ongoing hearings that are part of the inquiry's work examining possible foreign interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two general elections.

The Conservatives mentioned China 31 times in their written election platform in 2021, and the party took what O'Toole described as a "stronger stance" on Beijing's human-rights violations than the Liberals.

An "information operation" spread messages on social media platforms WeChat and Douyin — the Chinese equivalent of TikTok — that said O'Toole and his party wanted "to break diplomatic ties with China," the report found.

Some posts said that Chinese Canadians were scared of the Conservative platform, and questioned whether that community should support the party.

Warnings to voters and affected candidates were warranted in that election, O'Toole argued, but Tories said security officials didn't inform the party about the concerns. Officials only informed O'Toole that he was a target of meddling attempts last spring, he said.

The government's special rapporteur, David Johnston, had found little evidence of a link between the alleged interference attempts and the election result. He also concluded that misinformation "could not be traced to a state-sponsored source" in China.

However, a declassified report from the last week of the 2021 election revealed "what may have been a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) information operation," aimed at dissuading Chinese-Canadians from voting for the Tories.

Former Tory MP Kenny Chiu testified that if Canada knew about a possible Chinese government-sponsored scheme at the time, they should have told him and other affected candidates.

He said he was one of those most intensely targeted by online misinformation, and learning what Canada knew all along made him feel angry. In retrospect, if he had known at the time, he said he might not have sought re-election.

"I was deeply troubled, disappointed, that I was exposed, and the government doesn't seem to care. And now ... through the commission I've learned that they've known all about it. It's almost like I was drowning, and they are watching," he said.

Chong also told the commission during his testimony Wednesday that he would have done things differently if he had been made aware earlier he was a target.

He described an incident in an all-candidates virtual debate during the 2021 election, in which an individual unfamiliar in the rural community who spoke in “Mandarin-accented English” asked questions that Chong described as “accusations.”

Chong said if he had known he would have “gone on high alert during that election.”

That means when “that loaded question” was asked, he would have “pressed record.”

At an unrelated press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed O'Toole's assertion that foreign interference contributed to any Conservative losses.

"I can understand where someone who lost an election is trying to look for reasons, other than themselves, why they might have lost an election," Trudeau said Wednesday.

The conclusion of several intelligence and security agencies "was unequivocally that the election's integrity held, that not a single riding or the result of the overall election was impacted or changed because of foreign interference," he said.

China strongly denies all claims it has meddled in Canadian democracy.

Commission lawyer Natalia Rodriguez asked whether Chinese Canadians may have simply been turned off by the Conservative platform, but O'Toole rejected the idea that the party's long-standing position was to blame.

At the very least, he said, parties and candidates believed to be targets of foreign interference should be made aware, and voters should be warned about active misinformation campaigns, especially when it comes to foreign-controlled social media platforms like WeChat.

Such warnings could target specific ridings in diaspora languages where security agencies have detected the greatest threats, he said.

"I've seen enough to know that the process last time failed, and failed a lot of Canadians," O'Toole said.

It is not only Conservative candidates who have been warned about potential acts of Foreign interference. CSIS warned New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan in May 2023 that she was an "evergreen target" of the People's Republic of China.

She believes the fact that she was outspoken about human rights violations in China led her to be excluded from some Chinese community events in her riding, as an example.

Some voters would whisper to her about their apprehension in supporting her because of the risk their families in China could be targeted, she testified.

She would try to console them by telling them that their ballots would be anonymous, but "they have this fear in their heart," she told the commission.

The commission of inquiry, led by Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue, expects to hear testimony from more than 40 people including community members, political party representatives and federal election officials.

An initial report of findings from the commission is due May 3, and the final conclusions and recommendations are expected by the end of the year.

- With files from Anja Karadeglija

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2024.

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Erin , I don't believe you. And it was your party who in 2011, instigated ROBOCALL, which whole purpose was to to make non conservative votes invalid by misdirection voters to the wrong polls. Now u r complaining about something g hypothetical that has been Evaluated and found insignificant.

Erin O'Foole is grasping at straws if he believes they lost nine ridings due to foreign interference. Erin lost his job because his party thought he was to centre, as the party had moved to the extreme right. He also lost his job because of his push to recognize climate change as real which was rejected by the CPC. Erin has no one to blame but himself.

As they waste time and money on the foreign interference inquiry, the solution is simple. Policial parties should be prohibited from running attack ads on any type of media, instead tell Canadians what their party will do for Canadians, what are the top issues Canadians face. Attack ads are not informative and only cause disinformation. We know Pierre's "axe the tax" campaign is based on deliberate disinformation, these should be challenged by the media, but the right-wing media gives him a pass. But if Justin Trudeau farts, it becomes a national scandal in the media.

Social media companies need to do a better job blocking and removing political disinformation during an election or at least post a warning that the post is not based on facts. There is way too much garbage on social media that users believe as fact and are too lazy to fact check anything. There is so much anti-climate change, political party bashing, false electric vehicle information, conspiracy theories, and disinformation/greenwashing by the fossile fuel industry. Social media has become a disease rather than a place to discuss factual information or connect with family and friends.

I think we need to be a bit careful just what we're saying when we say "foreign interference". If we mean "People affiliated with some government said things that might persuade some voters to vote in some direction" . . . well, I can see being annoyed if you're on a side being targeted, but that's not actually illegal or anything. The Americans do it all the time about any country they think isn't voting the right way, and we rarely complain about that. After all, we all know the definition of "dictator" is "any Latin American who won an election when the Americans wanted someone else to win".

If we want to do something about it, what we want is not so much policing of foreign governments as reform of the media, including social media, and the rules surrounding them, and the financing rules around political messaging generally. But that might hit the special interest groups and foreign powers they WANT interfering in our elections, so I suspect it's a non-starter.

If we mean people affilitated with a foreign government tampered with ballots, or gave people fake information so they wouldn't reach the correct polling station like the Conservatives did that time, that is actual foreign interference with an election. But I don't think anyone is alleging that, they're just sort of vaguely talking as if political speech by the wrong people is the same as that.