CSIS saw ‘low-level’ Chinese meddling in 2019 election, inquiry hears

Click to play video: 'Foreign interference inquiry hears details of Trudeau’s secret interference briefings'
Foreign interference inquiry hears details of Trudeau’s secret interference briefings
Dozens of confidential documents have been entered as evidence at the public inquiry into foreign interference, detailing what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knew about suspected interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections - and when. As David Akin reports, Katie Telford, Trudeau's chief of staff, testified about when the prime minister was briefed about potential security breaches, including involving allegations against former Liberal MP Han Dong – Apr 9, 2024

The former minister of democratic institutions says she was told after the October 2019 federal election that Canada’s spy agency had seen low-level foreign interference activities by China.

Karina Gould, who held the portfolio from early 2017 to November 2019, said in a classified interview last month that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service indicated the activities were similar to what had been seen in the past.

“That foreign interference did not affect Canadians’ ability to have a free and fair election,” says a public summary of Gould’s interview.

The summary was disclosed Wednesday at a federal inquiry into foreign meddling in the 2019 and 2021 elections, where Gould testified in an open session.

Gould, now government House leader in the Commons, is on parental leave.

Click to play video: 'Redacted CSIS files presented at foreign interference inquiry'
Redacted CSIS files presented at foreign interference inquiry

As democratic institutions minister, she oversaw the design of a process to protect Canada’s general elections from foreign meddling.

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Under a federal protocol, national security officials would inform a special panel of five senior bureaucrats of an interference attempt during an election period.

There would be a public announcement if the panel 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 elections. In both ballots, the Liberals were returned to government with minority mandates while the Conservatives formed the official Opposition.

Allegations of foreign interference in those elections — suggestions fuelled by anonymous leaks to the media — led to a chorus of calls for a public inquiry.

The inquiry has already heard that China and other state actors attempted to interfere, but there has been little evidence so far to indicate whether they were successful.

Gould told the inquiry Wednesday that if Canadians are to be informed “that a foreign actor has interfered in our election, the threshold needs to be high.”

Before any public announcement from the panel, “they need to be certain that this is something of significant enough value” to the national interest that it be made public, she said.

Click to play video: 'Foreign interference inquiry hears of alleged money transfers from China'
Foreign interference inquiry hears of alleged money transfers from China

Gould said the process was designed to allow for a public announcement due to meddling at a national level or “something that’s happening in one, singular riding.”

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“It could be either,” she said. “Canada doesn’t have one national election, we have 338 individual elections that make up an electoral event. And so everything is context-specific.”

Dominic LeBlanc succeeded Gould as the cabinet minister responsible for democratic institutions after the Liberals returned to power in 2019.

He was asked to review how the measures she implemented worked in practice.

In that role, he rarely received classified intelligence, but he said Wednesday he was given a “sufficiently precise” understanding of the “threat landscape” by the Privy Council Office, which worked with the national security agencies.

“I had every confidence that I had all the information I needed,” he told the inquiry.

In his view, the plan Gould put in place worked.

Gould wasn’t briefed on irregularities in the 2019 nomination race in the Toronto riding of Don Valley North, where Han Dong was named Liberal nominee. She told the commission it was outside her purview as democratic institutions minister.

Dong left the Liberal caucus last year following media reports of allegations that he willingly participated in Chinese meddling and won his seat in 2019 with Beijing’s help — a claim he denies.

Bill Blair was told about the irregularities after the election in his role as public safety minister at the time, but Blair said in a classified interview with the commission that he “was not concerned.”

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During public hearings Wednesday, Blair said security officials had no additional supporting information. “They indicated to me that they did not, at that time, have other corroborating evidence in any way to substantiate that.”

Blair, now defence minister, also told the inquiry CSIS did not indicate that Dong had any knowledge of the irregularities. He trusted the spy agency to take the appropriate action, he said.

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