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Opposition parties affirm call for interference inquiry, amid questions over MP Han Dong

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Amid renewed questions over the pervasiveness of alleged interference by China in Canadian elections and affairs broadly, opposition MPs voted Thursday afternoon to affirm a parliamentary committee's call for the federal government to strike a public inquiry.

The NDP forced a vote in the House of Commons on what's called a "concurrence motion," essentially seeing the House as a whole double down on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee's call for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to "launch a national public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canada's democratic system." 

The vote passed 172 to 149, with MPs from the NDP, Conservative, Bloc Quebecois and Green voting in favour, and Liberal MPs voting against.

Beyond heaping new pressure on Trudeau to supersede his prescribed late May timeline for special rapporteur David Johnston to advise whether an inquiry is needed, the vote is not binding. 

The report the majority of MPs voted in favour of called for the inquiry to include but not be limited to foreign interference allegations during elections, and to look at foreign governments beyond China.

It also outlined that the inquiry should be granted necessary powers to compel witnesses and secret documents, investigate abuse of diaspora groups by hostile foreign governments, and that the person selected to head the probe be picked by all parties.

"It has become very clear now with allegations coming out on a daily basis that are continuing to erode peoples' confidence in our democracy, that we need a public inquiry," said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh during a pre-question period scrum.

Asked by reporters whether he's ready to trigger a federal election over the prime minister's continued resistance to a public inquiry, Singh said no because he doesn't think it would be responsible to thrust the country into another campaign when there are concerns about the integrity of Canada's democratic processes.

"My goal is to safeguard democracy, encourage people to participate, make sure people feel comfortable voting and feel safe to vote and are not being influenced in their votes. That goal is met by having a public inquiry. That goal is not met by triggering an election, which would then be an election open to all those same potential risks of interference."

This latest push came after Toronto-area MP Han Dong announced Wednesday night that he would be stepping out of the Liberal caucus to sit as an independent MP to focus on clearing his name in light of new allegations levelled by Global News that he was involved in efforts by China to meddle in Canadian affairs.

Citing unnamed "national security sources," Global News reported that Dong had suggested to a senior Chinese diplomat in 2021 that China should delay releasing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor -- the two Canadians who had been imprisoned in China from 2018 to 2021 -- in order to avoid benefitting the Conservative Party. CTV News has not independently verified Global News' reporting.

Dong admitted in the Global News report he had spoken with the Chinese official to discuss the two Michaels, but strongly denies the allegations that he pushed for their release to be delayed. In the House, he told MPs he did "nothing to cause any harm" to the two Michaels and "worked hard and advocated for their interest."

“The allegations made against me are as false as the ones made against you,” Dong said, referring to Kovrig and Spavor in his remarks. "I will be sitting as an independent to ensure that the business of government, and indeed, the business of Parliament, is not interrupted as I work to clear my name."

Dong voted in favour of the motion calling for a public inquiry.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Chinese Consulate General in Toronto said the claims made in recent media reporting are "utterly groundless."

Focusing on this story during question period, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre peppered Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly with questions.

"A thousand days, a thousand days, the two Michaels sat hopeless in a windowless cell, fed in doggie bowls that were slid under their door, going eight months without seeing consular support. Yet, according to Global News, a Liberal MP allegedly contacted the Chinese Consulate and encouraged them to delay the release of these two Michaels for partisan Liberal gain. The intelligence services that came up with this information to the media would have told the prime minister. When did they tell him?" asked Poilievre.

"Let me be clear. Bringing back the two Michaels, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, was the utmost priority of this government, of all members in this House, of all Canadians across the country,” Joly responded. “For two years, we worked tirelessly to make sure that these two Michaels—which were arbitrarily detained by China— would be coming back safe home. That's what we did. And that was the only priority. Thinking otherwise is absolutely false.”

In an English media exclusive interview on CTV's Your Morning that aired Thursday morning, Trudeau was asked why he hasn't been more forthcoming about what he knew and when in terms of allegations of election interference attempts by China. Trudeau said those kinds of questions wouldn't "necessarily" be able to be explored in a public inquiry, citing national security limitations.

"Whereas the panel of parliamentarians that we have that have got top secret clearance to look into it… David Johnston as our expert is going to be able to look at that, and reassure and give Canadians confidence," Trudeau said.

In an interview with CTV News, former CSIS Director Ward Elcock said what is being alleged about Dong doesn’t rise to the level of foreign interference, noting MPs can and do speak to foreign governments and express views, and that in and of itself is not improper, it depends what is discussed.

"This is a Canadian, allegedly, a Canadian MP talking to and providing advice to a Chinese diplomat. That's not foreign interference. It doesn't also rise to the level of he is now working for the Chinese... It's not espionage, it's not foreign interference. At best, it's allegedly improper activity or behavior on his part as an MP, no more no less," he said.

Elcock added whomever is leaking these allegations is doing damage to both Canada's national security and intelligence operations and the individuals involved, and expressed concern over how politicized the issue has become.

"I don't regard this as a positive thing at all. At the end of the day, it has allowed this issue to become just a political football, and for national security issues to become a political football is the worst of all possible worlds," Elcock said. He remains against the idea of a public inquiry.

With files from CTV News' Tom Yun and Judy Trinh

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