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Five areas Canada's foreign interference commissioner says needs more investigation

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Commissioner Marie-Josee Hogue released her interim report examining foreign election interference on Friday, concluding that while Chinese meddling did occur in a few ridings, it did not affect the overall outcome of Canada's 2019 and 2021 general elections.

In wrapping up the first phase of her work – which focused on determining whether China, Russia and other foreign actors interfered in the last two federal votes, the flow of official information, and how the government responded to what it knew – Hogue noted a handful of areas that require more examination before she can make conclusions or recommendations.

Here are five elements of foreign election interference that Hogue says she needs to further probe during the second phase of the public inquiry before being able to pronounce on them.

Vulnerability of nomination races

An area of considerable focus throughout reporting and hearings on foreign interference has been how political parties run their nomination races to determine who will be the candidate in each riding and whether more oversight is merited.

Pointing to the example of Liberal-turned-Independent MP Han Dong's 2019 nomination contest, Hogue said that experience makes clear the extent to which nomination contests can be gateways for foreign states looking to interfere in Canadian democracy.

"This is undoubtedly an issue that will have to be carefully examined in the second phase of the Commission's work," she said in the 193-page preliminary report.

Although Hogue flags the vulnerability of nomination races, national security expert Wesley Wark points out the report may not drive changes on that front.

"The problem here is that nomination contests are governed by political parties. So it will be up to the political parties, not the government, which is the intended focus of the report to decide," said Wark, who is a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Question of threshold to alert Canadians

The hearings also examined the question of when the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol should be activated to alert Canadians about an act of foreign interference during a writ period. There have been arguments made that the threshold should be lowered for future races.

In Friday's report, Hogue notes that "as soon as the impact of foreign interference is known, there is a loss of trust in our democracy." She said the federal government was right to set a high threshold for sounding alarm bells, mindful to not "serve a foreign state's goal to sow discord and discredit democracy."

At the same time, Hogue says that people are right to be worried and want officials to "shine a light" on what is going on.

"This paradox is one of the issues I will look at in the next stage of my work," she said.

How to counter disinformation

Using the example of former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu, whose 2021 campaign was impacted by Chinese efforts to defeat Conservatives, Hogue says how governments can address instances of foreign disinformation during elections, needs more consideration.

Hogue is of the view that the government "appeared to require a very high certainty that foreign states were responsible for online activity," but she's concerned that officials put too much stock in politicians' public statements countering false narratives cleansing "the information ecosystem."

"By the time that disinformation fades away, it may be too late. The damage to the democratic process may already be done. The fact that the narratives… had died down by election day does not mean that they had no effect."

The next phase of the commission "must" examine this, she said.

How intelligence is communicated, shared

A fourth concept that Hogue wants to dig further into is whether national security and intelligence agencies should say more than they have in the past about various attempts or threats they're tracking.

This includes the question of how intelligence and information about foreign interference should be communicated within government, to the public, and to those vulnerable to its effects.

"In my opinion, the evidence I have heard to date does not demonstrate bad faith on anyone's part, or that information was deliberately and improperly withheld," Hogue said.

"But it does suggest that on some occasions, information related to foreign interference did not reach its intended recipient, while on others the information was not properly understood by those who received it," she said. "These are serious issues that need to be investigated and considered."

She said that revealing only general information – as clearly has been the case in certain high-profile examples of meddling concerns – "risks obscuring the importance of what is being communicated, thereby reducing the likelihood that those receiving the information will internalize and act on it."

Attributing interference to a state

Lastly, the commissioner said that more contemplation and consideration is needed around how Canada decides to name the foreign states behind various interference attempts.

"The evidence I have heard is that attributing electoral interference to foreign state actors can be extremely challenging, especially with the sophisticated online tools and tactics now available, and the use of proxies and co-optees," she said.

Look for questions to be raised in the next phase aimed at illuminating how and when federal officials determine they have what they need to confidently name and blame another country for meddling.

Wark says he’s frustrated there wasn’t more in the report to push for action with interim recommendations given the tight frames that Hogue is working. The commissioner won’t file her final report until 2024. Wark says the judicial inquiries usually give the government one year to respond, making it difficult to implement any of Hogue’s recommendations before the next election expected in the fall of 2025.

"She was meant to look at not only indications of election interference, but how the government responded and how it handled intelligence. There’s very little of that," Wark said. "This first phase report is probably going to disappoint many people who expected more bang for their buck from the commission."

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