Canada’s spy agency is growing “increasingly concerned” about China’s attempts to influence Canadian politics, a senior official told members of Parliament on Tuesday.
That’s because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is “involved and interested in promoting their own national interests” in Canada, Michelle Tessier, the deputy director of operations for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) told the procedure and House affairs committee on Tuesday.
“They are an actor in foreign interference, and we have said that publicly … that we are concerned about the activities regarding threats against the security of Canada, including foreign interference by the Chinese Communist Party,” Tessier told MPs.
For example, the CSIS official said China and other countries — though Tessier did not specify which — have been trying to target elected officials at “all levels of government” in order to promote China’s national interests.
China also tries to encourage individuals to “speak or act” as “proxies on behalf of the Communist Party of China,” she added.
“So that remains of concern to us, in terms of their influence activities and how they try to manipulate some … individuals to work in their interests against Canada’s national interest,” Tessier said.
China tends to use “a number of techniques” to pursue this goal, Tessier added — including threatening Chinese communities here in Canada.
The CCP has been accused of establishing “police” stations around the world, including in Canada. The RCMP has confirmed it is investigating the allegation.
A group called Safeguard Defenders, a pan-Asian human rights organization based in Spain, alleged there are 54 Chinese “police” stations operating worldwide — three of which they believe to be set up in Canada’s Greater Toronto Area.
Safeguard Defenders quoted Chinese claims that its police forces “persuaded” 230,000 individuals living abroad to “voluntarily” return to China to face potential criminal charges.
In addition to this allegation, CSIS is concerned about “the use of media by many of the hostile state actors, including China.”
“All available vectors in media would be able to be exploited, I guess, by hostile state actors. So all types of media are certainly vulnerable to exploitation,” Tessier said.
Another technique hostile foreign actors have deployed is capitalizing on existing wedges elsewhere around the world — and driving them deeper, according to the CSIS official.
“That is very much one of the vectors that are used, is to, as an example, try to find a divisive issue in society and amplify it one way or the other,” Tessier said.
“What we did see, certainly during COVID, was interest by hostile state actors to try to spread disinformation.”
Overall, Tessier said it’s a worrying trend.
“I would say that we are increasingly concerned. I think we have seen, as was mentioned earlier, the laws that the Chinese Communist Party has passed making it obligatory for everybody in China, including the private sector, to work on behalf of the government,” Tessier said.
“So I think we are seeing increasing authoritarianism, if I can allow myself to say that word, in terms of the Communist Party of China’s strategy in this regard.”
Multiple complaints of foreign influence filed in last election
Complaints of foreign interference in Canada’s elections also slightly increased in 2021, the committee heard on Tuesday.
That said, complaints are just allegations — and in “many cases they don’t fall within the prohibited conduct in the (Canada Elections) Act,” according to Marc Chénier, deputy to Canada’s elections commissioner.
“For the 43rd general election there were 10 complaints involving some component that could be foreign interference, and for the last general election there were 13,” he told the procedure and House affairs committee on Tuesday.
“Often we just cannot do anything with the complaint.”
Elections Canada’s chief electoral officer, Stéphane Perrault, confirmed there have been “no breaches” of Elections Canada’s IT infrastructure.
“That I know for a fact,” he said.
While Elections Canada faces cyberattacks “every day,” Perrault said the agency has “no mechanism of knowing whether they’re foreign or domestic.”
“But we have had no breach, and we have had no interference in our operations,” he said.
“That is not to say that there’s not a foreign interest in Canadian elections and the political debates and the political outcomes.”
— with files from Global News’ Heidi Lee