It’s been a good few years for foreign actors looking to sow division and doubt in western democracies, from the Brexit referendum in 2016 to Donald Trump’s win later that year and the controversy over the supposedly “stolen” U.S. election four years later.
Now, it seems the spotlight has shifted to Canada, where a series of leaks from the intelligence community about Chinese interference in our elections has triggered a national conversation about the integrity of the 2019 and 2021 votes — and a potential crisis for the Trudeau Liberals.
Attempts by foreign governments to influence Canadian elections are hardly new. And while hostile powers like China and Russia are at the forefront of our collective imagination right now, it’s actually the Americans who have most frequently been involved. Most (in)famously, the John F. Kennedy administration that sent their polling guru to help the Liberals defeat John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives in the 1962 and 1963 campaigns. In more recent times, we’ve seen former U.S. presidents offer official endorsements of Canadian parties, along with a steady flow of professional campaign staff and their methods across the border.
But when openly hostile foreign governments that kidnap Canadian citizens send large quantities of money and manpower to help sway the outcome of an election, that’s a different kind of threat. And according to allegations reported by both the Globe and Mail and Global News, that’s exactly what happened in 2021. The stories indicate the Chinese government targeted a small handful of ridings in the Greater Toronto and Greater Vancouver areas in the hopes of helping secure a Liberal minority government.
Wesley Wark, a national security expert who recently retired from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and served two terms on the prime minister’s Advisory Council on National Security (2005 to 2009) and the Advisory Committee to the President of the Canada Border Services Agency (2006 to 2010), suggested we should be wary of taking these allegations at face value. “There is a difference between understanding the bad intentions of a foreign actor to interfere in our democratic processes and appreciating whether those intentions were actually carried out in any meaningful, impactful way,” he wrote on his Substack. “Not all boasts intercepted by CSIS from Chinese consular officials should be taken as gospel truth.”
As CSIS director David Vigneault told a parliamentary committee on Thursday, there were no “major” incidents of foreign election interference — at least, as determined by a panel of five senior public servants charged with assessing the matter. We also have a report by Morris Rosenberg, a longtime public servant and former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs under Stephen Harper, who was tasked by the federal government to assess the prospect of interference in our elections and what should be done to prevent it. His report, which landed Friday, made a series of recommendations on how the government could improve both the security of our elections and the public’s understanding of that.
But these sorts of sober-minded conclusions don’t stand a chance in our digital information ecosystem, where the discourse remains intoxicated by partisanship and performative outrage. It doesn’t help when journalists like John Ivison talk about “collusion” and the possibility the Liberals were “co-conspirators” in the Chinese government’s efforts despite no actual evidence to that effect. Layer in a very timely leak about the Trudeau Foundation accepting donations from Chinese sources — and Rosenberg’s previous role as its executive director — and you have all the ingredients you’d need for a political hot potato.
What people are reading
It didn’t take long to bake, either. According to a fresh batch of data from Angus Reid, 42 per cent of past Conservative voters now think the 2019 and 2021 elections were “stolen” due to Chinese involvement. For the folks who buy their tinfoil in bulk, this new belief about stolen elections will fit nicely alongside their existing ones about the pandemic, climate change, and the World Economic Forum. But it’s the two-thirds of respondents in that same poll who think there was an attempt by China to interfere with our recent elections that should worry everyone. Trust is a finite and perishable asset, and once it’s gone, it’s very hard to get it back.
There’s no way for the Trudeau Liberals to get all of this toothpaste back in the tube, especially when conservative politicians and pundits are squeezing it as hard as they can. But the party does need to at least try to clean up as much of the mess as it can, and it won’t do that by continuing to minimize or dismiss the seriousness of this situation. Instead, they need to go in the other direction and expand the conversation to include all the various attempts — both foreign and domestic — to influence our elections. As Rosenberg wrote in his report, “Foreign actors can exploit the free speech protections possessed by Canadians to sow disinformation. This is an area that can benefit from research to better understand these relationships.”
Indeed. That’s why Canada needs some sort of public inquiry, one that examines all of the potential sources of interference in our democratic process. Yes, it will be a distraction for the government, and it may well reveal information it doesn’t find flattering. But as Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, told the Globe and Mail: “The radical changes in geopolitics and technological advancements of the past several years mean we’re in a different, more dangerous world where many foreign actors have an interest in harming democratic institutions and the capacity to do it… We should be confident in our democratic institutions, but we should guard them aggressively.”
If we don’t, we risk further undermining the public’s confidence in our elections — and perhaps their willingness to support and protect them. In America, democracy is very clearly under attack, both from within and without. If we want Canada to avoid the same fate, our government needs to act decisively.
The government may be limited
The government may be limited in sharing information due to national security concerns. Conducting a public inquiry may reveal sensitive information and increase our vulnerability.
Regarding the possibility of a foreign actor attempting to influence a minority government outcome, it's important to consider the probabilities and rationale. It seems unlikely that a foreign actor could accurately predict and influence a minority government result, and it would be more logical to attempt to sway a majority government.
Let's do a thought experiment
Let's do a thought experiment. Imagine everyone's worst fears about Chinese, aka "The Yellow Peril," election meddling are not only true' but but also worse than imagined. Now, suggest laws, regulations, programs, and actions that would solve the 'problem.' So far, across the media, not a single politician, pundit, or expert has made any suggestion beyond "When I say do something, do something."
By all means, indulge in the political pomp and ceremony of an independent inquiry. But, please, let's try, at least, to have enough integrity to not pretend it will result in any prescriptions to the problem of nefarious actors meddling in Canada's elections and political parties.
Perhaps, too, pundits might consider NOT punditing on the issue when they're not even prepared to suggest the actual solutions to the issue of election meddling by foreign actors. The solutions include reforming Canada's electoral system to Single Transferable Vote, public funding of candidate's election campaigns, elimination of tax incentives for donations to political parties, and no reimbursement political party's campaign expenses.
Not Single Transferable Vote.
Not Single Transferable Vote. Mixed Member Proportional. But aside from that I'm with you.
If we want to narrow the
If we want to narrow the focus a bit for the sake of understanding election outcome manipulation let's investigate how Derek Sloan got to run and be my Conservative MP for three years and then take a run at CPC leader before they decided he was too unwholesome - even for them. As far as I know, no nefarious body including the Chinese, achieved this kind of success for their cause.
Exactly. The enemy lies
Exactly. The enemy lies within. The American furor over the terrorist threat from abroad finally had to conclude that domestic terrorism was the real problem, and here, remember "Robocalls," a shocking first, and the "Fair Elections Act" which was so shamelesslty and blatantly the exact opposite?
And then there's the unprecedented extremity of the trucker convoy and the Jan. 6th insurrection, which have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt which political side is most pent-up desperate to "win" no matter what, and therefore most dangerous to our democracy. But also that roughly 30% of our citizens identify strongly enough with them and are tribal enough to overlook anything. It's why Boilievre can stand there with a straight face and insinuate regular collusion with China, and why 42% of conservatives are teeing up for "Stop the Steal!"
Liberals were caught at the usual oily type of influence with the sponsorship program, and paid a high price that still resonates despite years, some jail time and a complete changing of the guard, but somehow the bolder more openly rogue actions of the conservatives just attract MORE appetite for more of the same, to the extent that a whole other party has been formed to accommodate them. (This burgeoning group of yahoos is what I would like to see a public study done on.) This type of behaviour correlates not only with the standard emotionality of tribalism and the whole thing being your "team" in this sport for the boys, but also with the growing social media type of entertainment currently infiltrating EVERYTHING.
So Max may be right that nowadays and in the current obnoxious climate, a panel of five appointed public servants and this last grilling of "experts" won't be enough for this rotation of the con's squeaky wheel even though, like the convoy report, it probably won't make any difference anyway....
I think Canada has been so
I think Canada has been so naive regarding China, and now it's catching up with us. We have been so eager to have "Free Trade" with China, even though China is an authoritarian government which is responsible for countless human rights abuses and which oppresses dissension.
I have listened to both sides of the argument as to whether to conduct a public inquiry, and I agree that it seems to be the only way forward now. It will be costly and much of the information will be classified (and not available to the public). It must be an Independent inquiry, free from partisanship. Maybe it will help to dispel the disinformation which is now circulating on social media. I would hope that our political leaders remember to put the well-being of our country first and to refrain from hyper -partisanship (which only undermines trust).
Also, this situation demonstrates that Canada urgently needs Foreign Interference legislation, laws that would limit nefarious foreign activities in Canada. Australia passed this type of legislation in 2018 and has urged Canada to do the same. This legislation would help control actions from not only China (under the United Front), but also Russia, Iran and any other players wanting to undermine our democracy.
Once again, I highly recommend Joanna Chiu's book, China Unbound: A New World Disorder, for information about China's activities in Canada and all over the world.
China as a world power is
China as a world power is creepy and scary. But frankly, not as bad in their effects on other countries as the USA, of whom we're a lapdog. We need to become less naive on a number of fronts.
A good model would be the
A good model would be the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar which had access to classified information and which published both a public report and a report for those with security clearance. Commissioner O'Connor argued that the public report effectively conveyed the essence of what he learned from both public and secret sources. He wrote,
"The process was complex because of the need to keep some of the relevant information confidential, to protect national security and international relations interests. I received some of the evidence in closed, or in camera, hearings and am unable to refer to some of the evidence heard in those hearings in the public version of this report. However, I am pleased to say that I am able to make public all of my conclusions and recommendations, including those based on in camera evidence."
Technically it's an act of
Technically it's an act of war. The Americans and Soviets used to interfere with and even overthrow governments during the Cold War. I don't know if Trudeau is trying to balance economics here with sovereignty but a response is absolutely required.
Ridings are a problem, they
Ridings are a problem, they are easily targeted, our Political Parties like this because they target Ridings specifically groups within the Riding that they can influence to vote for them or not show up to vote (see ROBO calls). The Ridings over the years have become voting ghettos dominated by one or two ethnic groups, easy to target