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Election interference worse than government admits, rights coalition says

RELATED: PM Justin Trudeau testifies at public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada's elections.

Foreign interference in Canada’s past two federal elections was likely worse than the government has acknowledged and may have swayed results in some ridings, says a coalition of diaspora groups.

In its closing submission to the foreign interference inquiry, the Human Rights Coalition said flaws in the system for public complaints meant election meddling was underreported.

“As such, the bodies that determine the extent to which the integrity of the 2019 and 2021 elections have been comprised likely did not have the full picture of the extent of foreign interference at the time.”

While it may not have changed the nationwide results, tampering by overseas governments did have an impact at the electoral district level, the coalition of eight diaspora groups argued.

“We submit that the commissioner cannot take the positions of government bodies that foreign interference did not happen to an extent that threatened the integrity of the elections, at face value.”

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The coalition participated in the inquiry on behalf of eight advocacy groups representing Chinese and other diasporas, which they said “bear the brunt” of foreign interference.

Its closing submissions were among 18 filed to Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue after public hearings ended last week.

Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, January 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld. ajw, RJB

The government has insisted that while China, and to a lesser extent India and Pakistan, tried to sway the elections, those actions did not ultimately swing election results in the Liberals’ favour.

Both the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and a panel of five senior public servants tasked found that covert operations did not threaten the integrity of the votes.

“They failed,” the government said in its own closing submission. “Despite having observed several foreign interference activities, Canada had free and fair elections in 2019 and 2021.”

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The office that investigates elections law violations, also said in its closing submission it had no evidence of interference on a scale that impacted the integrity of either federal contest.

Click to play video: 'Foreign election interference: CSIS director says he warned about threat multiple times'
Foreign election interference: CSIS director says he warned about threat multiple times

But the Human Rights Coalition argued in its submission that diaspora community members testified that “existing complaints mechanisms are inaccessible.”

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Language barriers and concerns about confidentiality were among the challenges they faced in coming forward to the authorities.

“Diaspora community members themselves testified in the course of the hearings that existing complaints mechanisms are inaccessible,” read the coalition’s submission.

“The evidence further illustrated that the poor communication goes both ways: diaspora community members are infrequently reporting to the national security agencies, and national security agencies are infrequently communicating with diaspora communities.”

As a result, Commissioner Hogue cannot take at face value the government’s conclusion that foreign interference “did not happen to an extent that threatened the integrity of the elections,” the coalition argued.

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The fact that some intelligence about election interference was still collected, notwithstanding the system’s flaws, “suggests that electoral interference was likely a much larger issue than relevant bodies have suggested.”

“With the above findings in mind, we submit that the commissioner should confirm, as a reasonable possibility, that foreign interference impacted the 2019 and 2021 elections at the electoral district level.”

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

Ahead of the 2019 election, the Liberals introduced a number of measures meant to insulate Canadian elections from the kind of foreign interference operations seen during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the U.K.’s Brexit referendum, and other democratic elections.

The steps included a panel of five senior public servants that received regular briefings from intelligence agencies about foreign interference called SITE which is tasked with notifying the Canadian public if any covert operations threaten the integrity of the election.

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The panel did not feel that the foreign interference operations reached that threshold, both in 2019 and 2021.

But the Conservative Party also argued the commission should not accept the government’s position that foreign interference did not influence the outcome of voting.

“Although the results of both general elections were legitimate, the evidence tabled at this inquiry demonstrates that, especially with respect to the 2021 general election, multiple riding election outcomes were negatively affected by foreign interference, whether or not the result would have changed in any one or more of them,” the Conservatives said.

In its closing submission, the Office of the Commission of Canada Elections said that it received a total of 201 complaints about potential foreign interference in the 2019 general election.

The high number of complaints related to the 2019 election was a result of 160 complaints being filed about just three “particular matters,” the office submitted.

“Of significance, the overwhelming majority of those 201 complaints [related to the 2019 election] were related to American individuals or entities.
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“The vast majority of the complaints were concerning comments or statements purportedly made by foreigners … with respect to the Canadian election or a candidate running in the election, which are expressly exempted under the (Canada Elections Act),” the office wrote in its submission.

There were only 22 complaints related to the 2021 vote. The OCCE launched just six investigations into complaints about foreign interference over the two contests, mostly into minor infractions.

“Subsequent to numerous summer and fall 2022 media reports concerning alleged foreign interference in the 43rd and 44th general elections, the OCCE initiated three reviews on related matters,” the submission read.

But testimony at the commission revealed “confusion as to which body departments provided pertinent documents or information — OCCE or (Elections Canada),” the office said.

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

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