Ottawa warns of ‘subtle but effective’ Chinese interference network in 2019 election

A voter leaves a polling station at the West Toronto Baptist Church during Election Day in Toronto, October 21, 2019.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

The Canadian government was warned after the 2019 federal election that an “active foreign interference network” on behalf of the Chinese government had played a role during the campaign.

The intelligence briefing, dated February 21, 2020, was released this week to a House of Commons committee investigating foreign interference in Canada. Much of the text in this document has undergone rigorous government review before publication.

But the second item in the briefing, prepared by the Office of the Privy Council, spoke of a “subtle but effective network of interference” between China and Canada.

It went on to say that “an investigation into activities related to the 2019 Canadian federal election has revealed an active foreign interference (FI) network.”

Federal Minister for Democracy Dominic LeBlanc told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedures and Home Affairs on Tuesday that regardless of foreign interference, the Civil Service Task Force determined that such interference would not change the outcome of the 2019 and 2021 elections.

“The Chinese government routinely tries to interfere in every aspect of Canadian society,” Mr. LeBlanc said. “The good news is we have robust security equipment to track these threats and intervene.”

He said he was reassured that “experts authorized to do this work have confirmed that none of these attempts to interfere constituted in any way something that adversely affected the outcome of the election and its outcome.”

Commons committee investigating foreign meddling as series of revelations about meddling ChinaHuman rights group Safeguard Defenders has accused China of running secret police stations around the world, including five in Canada. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Brenda Lucki says Mounties are investigating China’s Extensive Interference in Canadian Affairs. In testimony Nov. 1, CSIS Intelligence Assessment Director General Adam Fisher warned that China is the “prime aggressor” when it comes to foreign interference in Western countries, operating within Western countries’ political systems to “corrode” them.

In response to a question from Conservative MP Michael Cooper, Mr LeBlanc acknowledged he had been briefed this year on Chinese government interference in the 2019 election, but declined to elaborate, citing the need to keep the security briefings confidential.

Conservative foreign affairs commentator Michael Chong said the news that Ottawa had learned of an “active foreign interference network” on Beijing’s behalf in the 2019 election showed the need for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to share details of what happened.

The government has pledged to release internal documents related to foreign interference to the program and house committees. In practice, however, much of the document was edited before it was released to members of Congress, leaving page after page blank.

“I think the government needs to take this kind of intervention more seriously than before,” Mr Zhuang said. In one document, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service urged Ottawa to release details of foreign interference to draw attention to what was happening, he noted.

“CSIS recommends that they publicly disclose what is going on in a sunny and transparent manner as a way of countering Beijing’s interference,” Chong said.

He accused Mr Trudeau of failing to live up to his public pledge to share what the government knows with MPs. “These redacted documents are page after page of blank space.”

David Morrison, acting national security adviser to the prime minister during the 2021 election and after the 2019 election, said there had been no surge in foreign interference during those campaigns. “I would say that at all times we need to be vigilant” that there is some level of foreign interference or attempted foreign interference.

But “to the best of my knowledge, there has been no surge in foreign interference, either in the 2019 election or in the 2021 election,” Mr Morrison, now deputy foreign minister, told the committee’s MPs.

The Election Security and Intelligence Threats (SITE) Task Force, established to monitor threats to federal elections, has never issued any public warnings about foreign interference during the 2019 or 2021 campaigns.

Asked what threshold of concern must be met before bureaucrats on the task force issue a public notice, Mr. LeBlanc told MPs that members of the independent agency “enjoy some discretion in notifying Canadians”. It’s up to them to assess whether Canadians should be alerted, he said, depending on the likely impact of such an intervention, the impact on constituencies, and whether it’s on a national or regional scale.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told the committee that China has become very good at disinformation targeting Canadians. “China has shown increasing sophistication in conducting online campaigns to influence Canadians and people around the world. Beijing can quickly saturate social media platforms with messages, but is flexible enough to micro-target Canadian English and French as well as Chinese speaking audiences position.”

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