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What we learned from the inquiry into foreign meddling in Canada's elections

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If one thing from the public inquiry into foreign interference is clear, it's that China attempted to meddle in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

But the evidence is hazy on whether or not it succeeded. Here's what we learned over the past 10 days of fact-finding hearings, which ended Friday and included testimony from politicians, bureaucrats and representatives from several intelligence and security agencies:

Who is trying to interfere?

Canada's spy agency has pointed to China as "the most significant" source of foreign interference, with "sophisticated, pervasive and persistent" attempts at meddling.

The inquiry heard that Russian disinformation and Iran-linked intimidation campaigns pose a threat to democracy, but officials haven't identified a strong connection to meddling efforts in Canada's elections.

A panel of top bureaucrats -- called the "panel of five" -- was tasked with monitoring foreign interference and, if necessary, warning Canadians if they identified a threat to the integrity of the vote.

In 2019, the panel reported that interference was "directed largely from China, and to a lesser extent from India and Pakistan."

Prior to the inquiry, Canada had not publicly identified Pakistan as a source of foreign interference.

Documents tabled at the inquiry show the Canadian Security Intelligence Service believed Pakistani officials "likely tried to clandestinely influence and support Canadian politicians of Pakistani descent" in that election, prompting an undefined "threat reduction measure" from Ottawa.

How did they do it?

A top-secret briefing note to the CSIS director outlined several instances of potential foreign interference activity in the last two elections.

It shows that Beijing has been known to mobilize support for preferred candidates, and channel donations and other support to their campaigns.

China is also known to target and leverage families, using threats and intimidation.

Testimony and documents from the inquiry also suggest Beijing and New Delhi have tried to transfer cash to candidates who are less critical of their governments, unbeknownst to the candidates.

The inquiry heard about a widespread misinformation campaign that circulated mainly among Chinese speakers on social media sites like WeChat.

Several intelligence documents suggest the aim of the campaign was to dissuade the Chinese-Canadian community from voting for the Conservatives.

A briefing note from fall 2023 ties the campaign to China, and says it was "almost certainly" motivated by a perception that the Conservative platform was anti-China.

Other bodies, including the panel of five that monitors threats to elections, could not find a definitive link between the campaign and state-sponsored meddling.

What was the impact of the interference?

That much remains unclear, largely because the threshold for alerting the public is quite high.

Though the panel of five did consider issuing a public warning during the last two elections, the bureaucrats ultimately decided no threat was so great that it risked the integrity of the results.

The threshold for going public was intended to be high from the outside, said Karina Gould, who set up the panel during her time as minister for democratic institutions.

She testified that issuing too many warnings could jeopardize Canadians' faith in the election.

A CSIS briefing note from 2023 asserts that state actors can conduct foreign interference "successfully" in Canada because there are few legal or political consequences.

The CSIS director told the commission that is true, though he maintains those efforts did not threaten the integrity of the election.

Former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole testified that the misinformation campaign may have cost him as many as nine seats in the last election.

Intelligence officials have disputed that, and said it's difficult to measure the influence the campaign would have at the ballot box.

Several politicians spoke about the emotional toll foreign interference has taken on them and their constituents.

CSIS informed NDP MP Jenny Kwan she was an "evergreen" target for China. She told the commission some constituents have whispered to her about their fears for themselves and their families if they were to support her.

What about the curious case of former Liberal MP Han Dong?

Much of the testimony and evidence put before the commission dealt with accusations and intelligence related to Toronto MP Han Dong, who left the Liberal caucus last year following media reports that he willingly participated in Chinese meddling and won his seat in 2019 with Beijing's help.

One of the allegations contained in declassified reports suggests a bus load of international students were coerced to vote in his 2019 nomination race using falsified documents.

Dong once again denied any knowledge of those claims at the inquiry, but revealed that he did solicit support from high-school students with Chinese citizenship for his nomination in the Don Valley North riding contest.

He said he didn't personally see a bus load of them arrive at the nomination meeting, but heard about it.

Dong didn't tell the inquiry about this in his initial interview, but told the commission his wife had reminded him about this event -- an explanation that raised eyebrows during his testimony.

Meanwhile, the inquiry heard that Dong had discussed with Chinese diplomats Beijing's imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Media reporting alleged that Dong advised China to delay freeing the two Canadians, though intelligence agencies instead believe he had told diplomats that freeing the pair would not make the Conservative Party less critical of the Chinese government.

What did the prime minister know?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was warned during the 2019 election about "irregularities" in Dong's nomination contest.

He opted not to overturn the nomination since, as he understood it, the allegations weren't proven and there was no indication Dong knew what was going on.

Over the years, the CSIS director says he has briefed the prime minister on the overall threat landscape related to foreign interference as well as individual instances of potential meddling.

He told the commission Trudeau was warned that Canada lags behind other Five Eyes allies when it comes to tackling foreign interference, and that until it is considered an existential threat, the activity will persist.

There were some specific allegations Trudeau and his team learned about from media leaks, they said. That included a scheme involving as many as 11 candidates and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of funds funneled from China.

What happens next?

The commission is expected to deliver a preliminary report by May 3, and will deliver final recommendations by the end of the year.

In September, the commission is expected to hold another round of hearings focused on Canada's capacity to detect and deter foreign interference.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2024.

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