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How federal nominations became a ‘gateway’ to foreign interference

Click to play video: 'More foreign interference actions coming after inquiry report, India arrests: LeBlanc'
More foreign interference actions coming after inquiry report, India arrests: LeBlanc
WATCH: The issue of foreign interference returns to the spotlight as the public inquiry into election meddling releases its first report and the RCMP make an arrest of suspected foreign hitmen. ‘The West Block’ host Mercedes Stephenson sits down with Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc to discuss the new arrests in the 2023 killing of B.C. Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar. LeBlanc also addresses the findings of the foreign interference inquiry, which found that instances of foreign meddling did occur but did not alter the outcomes of Canada’s 2019 and 2021 federal elections. Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue also concluded that foreign interference did undermine public confidence in the electoral process – May 5, 2024

Justice Marie-Josée Hogue’s report into foreign interference last week contained a warning: party nominations can be a “gateway” for foreign interference.

That’s because parties are largely left to set the rules or enforce them — or not — free of the kind of independent oversight given to general elections.

There was also the concern that emerged over the course of Hogue’s inquiry that security agencies like the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) may not be as familiar with the, let’s say questionable tactics employed by domestic political actors in hard-fought nomination campaigns.

“My concern was more that perhaps (CSIS) didn’t understand as deeply as political actors do the prevalence of busing of different community groups in nomination campaigns,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the inquiry on April 10, referring to intelligence about alleged “irregularities” during the 2019 Don Valley North Liberal nomination.

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There’s some validity to that. More than 30 years ago, the Lortie commission on democratic reform called attention to the “decentralized” nature of responsibility for nomination contest themselves.

“The decentralized approach to nominations in Canada makes it more difficult” to ensure women are better represented in the House of Commons, Lortie’s report found, “because it requires the full commitment and co-operation of local associations.”

The different parties and their local associations all have different approaches to nomination contests — there’s no centralized standards or enforcement of uniform rules.

But Hogue’s caution comes at a time when the stakes for interference are arguably much higher, when regimes with hostile intent are trying to subvert the democratic process.

Hogue’s report makes clear that the nomination process itself is vulnerable, but the major federal parties seem to be very reluctant to address the situation.

“Parties are their own private clubs, and that’s how the courts view them, where they can set their own rules,” said Fred DeLorey, the former national campaign manager for the Conservative Party, in an interview with Global News.

And that’s a good thing, DeLorey said. Parties need to be able to run their own vetting or “green light” process for candidates, to ensure that the prospective MPs align with the party’s principles and won’t embarrass them in the middle of an election campaign with any skeletons in their closet.

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But in the absence of any real oversight, Canadians are left to take parties at their word that they’re taking the threat of foreign influence in nominations seriously.

Hogue’s report doesn’t explicitly lay out her reasoning that nominations are a potential “gateway” for foreign influence. But a close reading of the report’s main case study — the 2019 Liberal nomination in Don Valley North — pointed to some reasons why she could be concerned.

The report considered allegations, first reported by Global News, that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) allegedly attempted to tilt the nomination process in candidate Han Dong’s favour.

Those allegations, detailed in Hogue’s report, include that PRC officials in Canada contrived to bus in international students to support Dong — who were both ineligible to vote and allegedly coerced into supporting the Liberal nominee.

“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 read.

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

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.

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“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.

The 2019 contest would hardly be the first time a campaign has been accused of benefiting from bused-in voters, or the first allegation of ineligible citizens attempting to vote in a nomination contest, however.

Allegations of dirty tricks and party leadership titling a nomination contest for their preferred candidate are likely as old as nomination contests themselves. What appears new is foreign states – like China, Iran, or India – using the same kind of “questionable” tactics employed by domestic political operatives for decades.

Hogue’s report makes clear that the nomination process itself is a vulnerability when it comes to defending Canadian democracy from foreign meddling.

“This incident (in Don Valley North) makes clear the extent to which nomination contests can be gateways for foreign states who wish to interfere in our democratic process,” Hogue’s report read.

While Justice Hogue might be clear on that, what’s less clear is what can be done to prevent it.

If a foreign country wanted to covertly influence Canadian politics, it could take the risky route of meddling in a general election, which is held when security agencies and elections officials are on high alert and the public is paying more attention.

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Or they could look at nomination contests in so-called safe seats — a Conservative seat in Alberta, for instance, or Liberal seats in the heart of downtown Toronto — and attempt to influence who wins the nomination. In those seats, winning the nomination can almost guarantee heading to Ottawa.

At the federal level, nominations are largely left up to the parties themselves, with almost no independent oversight of the contests.

Elections Canada has a limited role in monitoring financial returns for compliance. It does not adjudicate disputes over alleged questionable tactics — let alone probe possible instances of foreign interference.

There’s good reason for that, according to DeLorey.

“If  a party wants to change their rules and just appoint candidates, they can do that. It’s really not the place of Elections Canada or any other entity to weigh in on that. The party needs to take its own responsibility to its memberships and to its founding or current values and apply it that way,” DeLorey said.

Rather than bringing in outside oversight, DeLorey said that parties need to take Hogue’s caution — that nominations can be a vector for foreign meddling — seriously and approach their own process accordingly.

Jack Siegel, a lawyer with a long history of involvement with the Liberal party, shares this view. As someone who says he has personally overseen more than a hundred nominations, Siegel wondered how party volunteers are expected to scrutinize nomination contests for potential foreign interference.

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“If we’re to look at these factors — and I suspect that we need to ask ‘how are we going to get the information?’ — that’s where you want to deal with the process and the challenge that we’re facing, beyond at the level of individual member or applicant for membership to the party,” Siegel said in an interview.

“Because at that point, the numbers and ability to implement reasonable controls take you far, certainly beyond what would be my comfort zone. How are we going to get this right? Because remember every time you get it wrong, you’re turning away someone who is eligible, you’re turning them away from the political process.”

Global News reached out to the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats to ask if they would be in favour of increased oversight into their nomination processes. None of the parties addressed that question.

A Liberal party spokesperson claimed in a statement that the party had the most “robust” nomination rules in Canadian politics.

“All of our candidates who have taken part in an open nomination contest have been nominated by local registered Liberals, in processes that have been fully in line with all of our national nomination rules and that were in place at the time of their nomination,” wrote Parker Lund in a statement to Global.

In a statement provided by a spokesperson, NDP National Director Lucy Watson called their nomination process “rigorous.”

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“After each election a committee is struck by our federal council to review the last election’s nomination process and develop the rules for the next election. These rules are reflective of our values and priorities. For example, we have strict criteria to ensure equity in our candidate search process,” Watson is quoted as saying.

“We welcome Justice Hogue’s interim report and will be examining the recommendations closely. We’re committed to ensuring our party’s measures always ensure a fair and democratic nomination process.”

Sarah Fischer, the director of communications for the Conservative party, did not respond to a request for comment. She did post on social media Thursday, however, about accusations of impropriety in the Conservative nomination contest in Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill.

One candidate, former National Post columnist Sabrina Maddeux, dropped out of the race on Thursday and made explosive claims that the party’s official list of members in the riding received “smear attacks” about her, and questioning the integrity of the contest.

Fischer shot back in a public post on X, formerly Twitter, that Maddeux’s claims were “completely false.”

“It’s common for the party to receive complaints from nomination candidates about their competitors over suspicions of wrongdoing and the use of lists,” Fischer wrote.

“In fact, we received a complaint about Ms. Maddeaux’s campaign sending out an email to current and former members of the party when she should not have had access to a membership list.”

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This is the kind of bog-standard spat Canadians tend to see in nomination contests, particularly in ridings where the candidate has a good chance of winning the seat. One veteran political insider told Global that it’s a common saying in nominations that if you don’t have a membership list, you likely don’t have a chance.

In the absence of actual oversight, the Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill nomination won’t be the last contest to see this type of complaint. And Canadians will be left to take it on faith that parties can guard against more insidious forms of interference themselves.

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