Foreign meddling ‘did not affect’ overall federal election results: inquiry report

Foreign meddling 'did not affect' overall federal election results: inquiry report
A federal commission of inquiry into foreign interference is slated to release a report today on alleged meddling in the last two general elections. Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue listens as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Foreign interference by China did not affect the overall results of the 2019 and 2021 general elections won by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, a federal commission of inquiry has found.

In an interim report Friday, commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue said while it is possible that outcomes in a small number of ridings were affected by meddling, this cannot be said with certainty.

Hogue, who heard extensive testimony and reviewed secret documents, concluded that interference by Beijing or others did not undermine the integrity of Canada’s electoral system during the two national votes.

“Our system remains sound,” Hogue said following release of her report. “Voters were able to cast their ballots, their votes were duly registered and counted and there is nothing to suggest that there was any interference whatsoever in this regard.”

Nor did meddling efforts “have any impact on which party formed the government in the two most recent elections,” she said.

However, Hogue stated in her report that interference from abroad undermined public confidence in Canadian democracy. “This is perhaps the greatest harm Canada has suffered as a result of foreign interference.”

The inquiry recently wrapped up 10 days of public hearings into suggestions of interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two general elections.

“I learned foreign interference is an ever-present reality not just in Canada, but around the world. I also learned that the government takes measures to try and respond to it, whether or not an election is underway,” Hogue wrote.

“In this way, foreign interference is like crime. It is always present. Its methods evolve. While government has ways to address it, it is likely impossible to eradicate. That said, it must be discouraged, and its effects must be mitigated.”

Under a federal protocol ushered in by the Liberals in 2019, there would be a public announcement if a panel of bureaucrats determined that an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.

There was no such announcement concerning either the 2019 or 2021 general elections. In both ballots, the Liberals were returned to government with minority mandates while the Conservatives formed the official Opposition.

Hogue said she cannot exclude the possibility that the outcome in some individual ridings could have been affected by foreign interference. “However, in my view, the number of ridings at issue is relatively small, and the ultimate effects of foreign interference remain uncertain.”

Hogue singled out two examples that came up repeatedly during the public hearings.

She scrutinized the 2019 Liberal nomination race in the Toronto riding of Don Valley North where Han Dong won the candidacy.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service flagged a potential plot involving a busload of Chinese international students with falsified documents, but Hogue said there wasn’t enough evidence to inform any conclusions about what actually happened.

She also pointed to the 2021 results in British Columbia’s Steveston-Richmond East, finding a “reasonable possibility” a potential Chinese interference campaign against Conservative candidate Kenny Chiu cost him the seat.

Overall, Hogue concluded that foreign interference “likely impacted some votes” in the 2019 and 2021 general elections, and more broadly undermined the right of voters to have an electoral ecosystem free from coercion or covert influence.

“This impact has likely been slight to date, but may become more severe in the future.”

The risk of politicians modifying their positions or messages because of foreign interference will increase “if we do not take sufficient protective measures to guard against it,” Hogue wrote.

“This outcome would be very detrimental to the functioning of our democracy, as it would undermine the fundamental principle that politicians must be free to express their opinions, and those of their constituents, without fear and without covert influence from a foreign state.”

Conservative MP Michael Chong called Hogue’s report “a damning set of conclusions” that contradicts “much of what the government has told us” over the last year-and-a-half.

Although Hogue’s main findings about the two most recent elections are reassuring for Canadians, her warnings for the future are very clear, said New Democrat MP Peter Julian. “So we need to prepare, we need to make sure as a country that we are ready.”

Julian said the government should act now to create a registry of foreign agents to help detect undue influence on Canadian affairs.

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Friday the work of the commission will support the government’s ability to adapt measures against interference. He reiterated plans to present legislation in coming days to bolster the federal toolkit.

The bill is likely to include changes to existing laws, such as the CSIS Act, to make it easier for authorities to crack down on meddling, as well as the establishment of a foreign agent registry.

The ongoing inquiry will next shift to broader policy issues, looking later this year at the government’s ability to detect, deter and counter foreign interference.

In her interim report, Hogue said the evidence to date does not demonstrate “bad faith on anyone’s part, or that information was deliberately and improperly withheld, 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.”

“These are serious issues that need to be investigated and considered.”

Attempts to meddle in Canadian affairs have long been a reality, prompting stark intelligence warnings as early as the 1980s about Beijing’s efforts to influence and exploit the Chinese diaspora.

In February of last year, the Globe and Mail, quoting classified CSIS records, said China worked to help ensure a Liberal minority victory in the 2021 election as well as defeat Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing.

The next month, the federal government announced that an independent rapporteur would look into foreign interference, one of several measures to counter meddling and strengthen confidence in the electoral process.

Former governor general David Johnston, who took on the task, said in a May 2023 report there were “serious shortcomings” in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government.

However, he found no examples of ministers, the prime minister or their offices knowingly or negligently failing to act on intelligence, advice or recommendations.

Johnston said several leaked materials that raised legitimate questions were misconstrued in some media reports, presumably because of a lack of context.

Finally, he recommended against a public inquiry, saying a commissioner would encounter the same obstacles of secrecy that marked his work.

Amid additional leaks to the media and pressure from opposition parties, however, the government announced in September that Hogue would lead a public inquiry.

By Jim Bronskill and Laura Osman.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2024.

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