Trudeau to Testify in Foreign Election Interference Inquiry

Trudeau to Testify in Foreign Election Interference Inquiry

By Oghale Apr20,2024

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada pushed back on Wednesday against intelligence reports indicating that his Liberal Party may have benefited from Chinese interference in Canadian elections, saying that he had been consistently tough against an increasingly aggressive China.

Testifying in Ottawa at a federal inquiry into foreign interference, Mr. Trudeau said that his government did not have enough information to take action against reported acts of Chinese interference during the general elections of 2019 and 2021. He insisted that the votes had been “free and fair.”

While he said that foreign interference was a genuine threat, Mr. Trudeau also downplayed intelligence reports describing how Chinese government officials had sought to meddle in the selection of a Liberal member of Parliament in Toronto.

Intelligence reports made public described how, in the 2021 election, China and its proxies acted against the main opposition Conservative Party, which they believed to be against Chinese interests. Instead, a report said, Chinese officials preferred to have Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals win and hold power as a minority government.

“It would just seem very improbable that the Chinese government itself would have a preference in the election,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Mr. Trudeau’s much-anticipated testimony was the highlight of this round of public hearings, which over the past three weeks have featured his closest aides, intelligence officials and political party leaders as well as politicians believed to have been targets or beneficiaries of Chinese state interference.

The hearings, through the release of intelligence reports and the sworn testimonies of witnesses, have painted a picture of how rising foreign powers like China and India have tried to advance their interests by increasingly tapping into diaspora communities and exploiting Canada’s democratic institutions.

They have also raised fresh questions about the Trudeau government’s handling of foreign interference. At the hearings, his top aides continued to downplay the intelligence that was available during key periods of the 2019 and 2021 general elections. But declassified intelligence reports, even in redacted form, show precise real-time information on races in Vancouver and Toronto at the heart of Chinese interference activities.

Mr. Trudeau called the inquiry only last September after an extraordinary series of leaks to Canadian news outlets of intelligence reports on Chinese interference.

A national security official wrote anonymously in The Globe and Mail, which obtained the reports along with the Global News television network, that he had leaked the documents because government officials were not taking the threat of foreign interference seriously enough.

“We know that the P.R.C. clandestinely and deceptively interfered in both the 2019 and 2021 general elections,” an intelligence report made public said in February 2023, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

According to the report, which was prepared for the prime minister’s office, Canada’s intelligence agency said that between June 2018 and December 2022, it provided 34 briefings on foreign interference to ministers and top government officials, including twice to Mr. Trudeau.

Most of the hearings have focused on China, whose “activities are sophisticated, pervasive, persistent and directed against all levels of government and civil society across the country,” another report said.

The Chinese Embassy in Canada has denied any interference in Canadian politics.

China’s interference efforts in Canada as well as in other countries have increased since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, experts say.

“These foreign interference efforts are becoming increasingly embedded in community-based networks that link federal, provincial and municipal politics in key Canadian cities,” another intelligence report said, adding that these “networks are potential tools of leverage against Canadian political officials.”

A 2022 report said that Chinese “missions in Canada continue to learn from their experiences across the country and refine their approach to” foreign interference activity.

In the 2019 election, Chinese government officials most likely transferred 250,000 Canadian dollars to proxies to help in the election of 11 candidates, according to one intelligence report. The Chinese state believed that the candidates “would reinforce China’s overall interests in Canada,” according to another report.

Chinese government officials “likely manipulated” a 2019 race in a Toronto district, according to another report. The Liberal candidate, Han Dong, acknowledged at the hearing last week that foreign high school students from China were bused in to elect him at a party vote, but he said he did not know who had chartered the bus.

After Mr. Trudeau was first elected in 2015, he pushed for a free-trade agreement with China as part of an overall policy to build friendly ties with Beijing. He initially dismissed security warnings, including about allowing the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei Technologies to work in Canada’s wireless networks.

But relations turned hostile when Canada arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer on a United States extradition request, leading Beijing to detain two Canadians in China in retaliation. In 2022, Mr. Trudeau’s government formally shifted its policy toward China, calling it “an increasingly disruptive global power.”

Still, the main opposition Conservative Party has taken a harder stance against China, pushing legislation condemning China on its human rights record and criticizing its security crackdown in Hong Kong.

In the 2021 election, China’s “activities were almost certainly motivated by a perception that the Conservative Party of Canada was promoting a platform that was perceived to be anti-P.R.C.,” the February 2023 report said.

One targeted candidate was a Vancouver lawmaker, Kenny Chiu, a Chinese Canadian who had been the main proponent of a bill to create a registry of foreign agents in Canada. Australia has established such a registry to curb Chinese foreign interference, and a Canadian intelligence report in 2021 stated that Canada’s lack of a registry “makes it impossible to legally designate” individuals or groups working on behalf of China as foreign agents.

After an onslaught of untraceable attacks on the Chinese-owned networking app WeChat, which labeled Mr. Chiu as a traitor to his community and his bill as a racist assault on all Chinese Canadians, Mr. Chiu unexpectedly lost his bid for re-election to Parliament in 2021.

A few months later, an intelligence report noted that “P.R.C. officials could be emboldened in their electoral interference efforts by the 2021 defeat” of Mr. Chiu.

The inquiry commission, which is led by Marie-Josée Hogue, a Court of Appeal justice from Quebec, is required to issue a preliminary report in May. The commission is expected to produce a final report on how to tackle foreign interference after holding another round of public hearings next fall.

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