Some 2019 candidates ‘appeared willing’ to engage with foreign interference: Hogue inquiry

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Foreign interference inquiry: Trudeau acknowledges erosion of public trust following report’s release – May 3, 2024

A handful of candidates in Canada’s 2019 federal election “appeared willing” to go along with foreign interference schemes, a federal public inquiry has found.

Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue’s preliminary report, released Friday, concluded that while hostile states attempted to covertly influence the 2019 and 2021 general elections, those efforts did not change which party took power.

But it also uncovered details about foreign interference operations in Canada, which Hogue called a “stain on Canada’s electoral process.”

The efforts include a group of “known and suspected” affiliates of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that “worked in loose coordination with one another to advance” Beijing’s interests.

Those actors had “direct connection” to 11 political candidates and 13 political staff members, some of whom “appeared willing to cooperate in foreign interference-related activity while others appeared to be unaware of such activity due to its clandestine nature.”

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Hogue could not say “with certainty” whether foreign interference tipped the scales in individual ridings.

But Hogue’s report – and the weeks of testimony and dozens of previously classified documents that led to it – confirmed “troubling” instances where foreign states may have attempted to interfere in Canada’s democratic elections. Those include:

  • Intelligence suggested that those PRC-associated “threat actors” received financial support, likely in the form of two transfers of approximately $250,000 from PRC officials in Canada “possibly for foreign interference-related purposes.” The funds were transferred via multiple individuals in attempt to hide their origins – including an influential community leader, a staff member of a 2019 candidate, and an Ontario MPP. The money was reportedly transferred in late 2018 and early 2019.
  • The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) concluded in February 2023 that China’s foreign interference in the 2021 election was “almost certainly” motivated by the perception that the Conservative Party was taking a hard line on Beijing. The timing of a misinformation campaign in PRC-affiliated media aligned with “Conservative polling improvements,” suggesting it was “orchestrated or directed by the PRC.”
  • Intelligence suggests a proxy agent of the government of India “attempted to clandestinely provide financial support to candidates in 2021,” without the candidates’ knowledge.
  • Security agencies believed that the PRC “likely manipulated one of the nomination contests in the Toronto riding of Don Valley North” ahead of the 2019 election, and that unconfirmed intelligence reporting suggested the international students were bussed in to support then-Liberal candidate Han Dong, potentially with falsified identification documents and perhaps under coercion.

All of these instances were concerning, Hogue concludes in her report, even though they did not change which party took power in both 2019 and 2021. That is not to say the foreign interference operations had no impact, however.

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“Interference occurred in the last two general elections, and indeed continues to occur frequently. It is likely to increase and have negative consequences for our democracy unless vigorous measures are taken to detect and better counter it,” Hogue wrote.

“In my view, the events named in this report likely diminished the ability of some voters to cast an informed vote, thereby tainting the process.”

Hogue’s report was months in the making after more than a year of the Liberal government resisting calls for an inquiry into foreign interference in the first place.

Over two months, the Hogue inquiry heard from more than 70 witnesses – including politicians, senior public servants and security officials, diaspora groups and political staff. It also grappled with a significant amount of now-declassified documents and summaries of CSIS intelligence.

Despite the significant amount of material and the gravity of the threat, Hogue was under a tight timeline to deliver Friday’s interim report.

Hogue was upfront with the limitations of her findings – she wasn’t able to test the information provided by intelligence agencies or question their conclusions, for instance. The inquiry was also not able to reconcile the at times contradictory testimony from different witnesses, or to conclusively name individuals believed to be behind foreign interference operations.

Even with those caveats, Hogue’s findings are the most conclusive look at the allegations of foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections. Global News was first to report the alleged foreign interference network, including the connection to 11 candidates, with national security sources suggesting some of the candidates were “witting” affiliates.

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The PRC is seen to be the “main perpetrator” of foreign interference in Canadian democracy “by a large margin,” according to the report. Broadly speaking, Beijing is agnostic about which party leads Canada, but seeks to aid candidates seen as “pro-China.”

“Foreign interference by the PRC is generally thought to be party-agnostic. The PRC does not support any particular party, but rather supports outcomes that it views as pro-PRC, regardless of the political affiliation of a particular candidate,” the report read.

One alleged PRC activity was meddling in the 2019 Liberal nomination in Don Valley North, first reported by Global News. Han Dong, now sitting as an independent MP after stepping down from Liberal caucus, has denied any knowledge about the alleged regularities.

“Before the (2019) election, intelligence reporting, though not firmly substantiated, indicated that Chinese international students would have been bused in to the nomination process in support of Han Dong, and that individuals associated with a known PRC proxy agent provided students with falsified documents to allow them to vote, despite not being residents of (Don Valley North),” the report reads.

The report noted that the information came from a variety of sources and had “various levels of corroboration.”

“After the election, some intelligence indicated that veiled threats were issued by the PRC consulate to the students, implying that their student visas would be in jeopardy and that there could be consequences for their families living in the PRC if they did not support Mr. Dong.”

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Dong has denied any involvement in the alleged irregularities, the report noted.

In his testimony at the Hogue inquiry, Dong said that if he was made aware of international students improperly voting in his nomination, he would have put a stop to it.

“I didn’t pay attention to busing international students because … I didn’t understand it as an irregularity,” he said.

Dong’s campaign manager, Ted Lojko, testified that he, too, knew nothing about the busload of students.

CSIS brought the allegations of irregularities to the attention of Jeremy Broadhurst, a senior Liberal campaign official, who in turn briefed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the intelligence in September 2019. Both Broadhurst and Trudeau concluded there was not enough evidence to suggest Dong should be removed as the Liberals’ candidate in Don Valley North.

Global News published a story about irregularities in the nomination in February 2023, citing unnamed national security sources.

In response, Trudeau defended Dong and attributed the allegations to racism.

“One of the things we’ve seen, unfortunately, over the past years is a rise in anti-Asian racism linked to the pandemic, and concerns being arisen around people’s loyalties,” Trudeau said in February 2023, more than three years after being briefed on potential PRC-related irregularities in Dong’s primary race.

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But Hogue noted that the incident – and the PRC’s alleged involvement – point to a larger problem with federal nominations, which are largely handled by the parties themselves with no external oversight.

“This incident makes clear the extent to which nomination contests can be gateways for foreign states who wish to interfere in our democratic process,” Hogue noted, adding that the inquiry would revisit the issue in the next stage of its work.

Trudeau told the commission that he believed the allegations about Dong’s riding would have to be revisited after the 2019 election, although it’s not clear what action Trudeau or Liberal officials took to investigate. Dong was allowed to run for the Liberals again in 2021.

“I asked Mr. Trudeau whether the issue was revisited after the election. Mr. Trudeau testified that (the Liberal Party) investigated immediately after they received the information … (but) he was not sure what more could have been done, as they were limited in the information they had,” Hogue wrote.

“For him, the follow-up was about obtaining more clarity from intelligence agencies on the possible involvement of Chinese authorities with a nomination race and a particular candidate. However, the specifics of any follow-up are at this point unclear, and I am not certain what steps were taken.”

Trudeau testified at the inquiry that given the intelligence he received, removing Dong as the Liberal candidate would have been a drastic option.

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But in an interview behind closed doors, he told Hogue that “un-endorsing Mr. Dong would have direct electoral consequences, as the (Liberal Party of Canada) expected to win in (Don Valley North)” adding it would have a “devastating impact on Mr. Dong personally.”

The Hogue report also revealed that CSIS issued a national security brief eight days after the 2019 election that suggested a “politically-connected Canadian” had been engaged in potential foreign interference.

“That person had not previously been identified as acting on behalf of a foreign state but appeared to have been doing so in the period leading up to the 2019 election. The report assessed that it was likely the actor ‘has already had an impact on the 2019 federal election, and will remain a foreign interference threat after the election,’” the report read.

It is not clear which “politically-connected Canadian” the memo referred to, but a senior CSIS official told the inquiry that they had long been a target of the agency. But after concerns were raised by members of the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections task force, CSIS revised its assessment.

“An updated (bulletin), dated 3 December 2019, removed the assessment and said instead that the person’s relationships and activities were consistent with known PRC tradecraft ‘which could be expected to be applied to future elections at all levels,’” the report read.

But aside from the direct political effects, Hogue’s report makes clear that foreign interference disproportionately effects members of diaspora communities in Canada – discouraging them from participating in politics, speaking out publicly, or facing disinformation campaigns if they enter public life.

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“These are not just facts that help me to understand foreign interference. They are the lived experience of thousands of Canadians who should have the right to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as other members of Canadian society,” Hogue wrote.

“Foreign interference and transnational repression deny them that right. While all Canadians are victims of foreign interference when it occurs, it would be naïve to say that it affects us all equally.”

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