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Foreign interference ‘undermined’ public confidence in elections: inquiry

Click to play video: 'Foreign interference inquiry: Trudeau acknowledges erosion of public trust following report’s release'
Foreign interference inquiry: Trudeau acknowledges erosion of public trust following report’s release
During a press conference on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the newly-released interim report regarding foreign interference in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 federal elections. – May 3, 2024

Foreign interference did not change the outcome of Canada’s 2019 and 2021 federal elections but did undermine the rights of Canadian voters because it “tainted the process” and eroded public trust.

That is the conclusion of Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue in her interim report released Friday at a public inquiry, which highlights “troubling events” in the last two votes.

Her findings were tabled more than a year after the first call went out to hold an inquiry into foreign interference attempts, which Hogue called a “stain on our electoral process.”

Click to play video: 'Trudeau calls China ‘significant’ foreign interference threat at public inquiry'
Trudeau calls China ‘significant’ foreign interference threat at public inquiry

Efforts by authoritarian regimes – primarily China – to meddle in Canada’s democratic institutions prevented some Canadians from casting an “informed vote” which ultimately “tainted the process” and diminished “faith in democracy and government,” she concluded.

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“Foreign interference in 2019 and 2021 undermined the right of voters to have an electoral ecosystem free from coercion or covert influence,” wrote Hogue.

The commissioner also highlighted nomination races, calling them “gateways” for foreign interference because these contests lack stringent voting eligibility criteria or control measures.

“The facts revealed by the evidence I have heard so far show that intelligence agencies collected information about troubling events that occurred in a handful of ridings during the 2019 and 2021 elections,” said the commissioner.

Click to play video: 'Foreign interference a ‘stain on the electoral process,’ inquiry finds'
Foreign interference a ‘stain on the electoral process,’ inquiry finds

Hogue, a Quebec Court of Appeals judge, is examining allegations of attempts to meddle in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. The allegations were first reported by Global News and the Globe and Mail.

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How India also attempts to interfere

While Hogue said China stands out as the main “perpetrator” of foreign interference against Canada, India may have also meddled in Canadian democracy.

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“Intelligence holdings indicate that the Government of India may have attempted to clandestinely provide financial support to preferred candidates during the 2021 election without the candidates’ knowledge,” she wrote.

Her report was made public the same day suspected hitmen accused of killing B.C. Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar were arrested in Alberta and Ontario.

Trudeau said there were “credible allegations of a potential link” between Nijjar’s death and agents of the Indian government.

Canada’s spy agency also identified Pakistan, Iran and Russia as potential threats.

However, “intelligence indicates that Russia is likely not currently a significant foreign interference threat to Canadian federal elections,” added Hogue.

Which ‘communications problems’ were identified?

The commissioner identified “communication problems” during the 2021 elections. Party representatives felt they were not “sufficiently informed” by an elections task force, which examines security and intelligence threats, of attempted meddling by China.

“We have been at work to ensure that the intelligence sharing and information sharing process is improved,” said Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc, after Hogue’s report was tabled.

Despite Hogue’s concerns about “troubling events” within nomination contests, LeBlanc said in French, he still has confident in the Liberal party’s rules governing these races.

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How Canada got here?

The inquiry began on Jan. 29, with roughly 70 witnesses testifying, including members of diaspora communities, intelligence officials, senior bureaucrats and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself.

The inquiry also reviewed dozens of now-unclassified intelligence reports and summaries, as well as summaries of interviews with key players in Canada’s government and intelligence communities.

The commission heard China “clandestinely and deceptively” interfered in both general elections and is “by far the most significant threat.”

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) highlighted Beijing’s “sophisticated, pervasive, persistent” attempts to influence the democratic process warning they are “directed against all levels of government.”

Hogue’s findings will focus on the integrity of the last two federal elections and examine the flow of information to senior decision makers and elected officials.

A CSIS assessment said “state actors are able to conduct foreign interference successfully in Canada because there are few legal or political consequences” calling foreign interference “low-risk and high-reward.”

But Trudeau maintained any attempt to interfere in the elections, did not compromise the integrity of the votes.

Former Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole testified that Chinese interference cost the Tories as many as nine seats in the 2021 election, although the party has maintained that the alleged interference did not affect the overall outcome.

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For months, the Liberals resisted calls to hold a public inquiry. Instead, Trudeau appointed former Governor General David Johnston to examine the issue as a “special rapporteur.”

Johnston’s preliminary report, released in early 2023, recommended against holding a public inquiry.

The decision sparked fierce criticism among opposition parties, which continued to agitate for a full public inquiry.

The prime minister eventually called one in September 2023 and appointed Hogue, a Quebec judge, to lead the commission.

Hogue and the team of lawyers and staff running the inquiry faced a very tight timeline to interview witnesses, review government documents and conclude weeks of public testimony.

Hogue is expected to deliver her final report December 31.

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