Canada’s public safety minister won’t say if the independent panel that reviewed the integrity of recent federal elections had access to national security information that reportedly warned of China’s alleged attempts to interfere in the vote.
Speaking to Mercedes Stephenson on The West Block Sunday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino pointed to the panel’s findings that the 2019 and 2021 elections were free and fair. But he didn’t clearly answer whether the panel ever saw intelligence that recent media reports have said warned of attempts by China at election interference.
“We’ve always been up front with the fact that there is foreign interference, that we need to be eyes wide open and vigilant about (it),” he said.
“Did that panel have access to these intelligence reports? Were they aware of what CSIS was aware of?” Stephenson asked.
“Our nonpartisan, professional public servants look at the information that they need to make the assessment around the integrity of the election,” Mendicino replied. “They get the access that they need to the information that is required to come to those conclusions.”
On Friday, the Globe and Mail reported that China deployed a “sophisticated strategy” in the 2021 election to defeat Conservative candidates and attempt to support the federal Liberals towards a minority government, citing documents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
The report follows months of exclusive reporting by Global News into allegations of attempted Chinese interference in the 2019 election, including memos and briefings by intelligence officials to Trudeau and his officials by national security and political agencies.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday said that “China is trying to interfere in our democracy, in the processes in our country, including during our elections.”
Mendocino was asked about those remarks.
“We have always been up front with Canadians that foreign interference is a significant threat in the national security landscape,” he replied.
The public safety minister insisted the government is taking aggressive action to counter foreign interference, pointing to crackdowns on foreign funding and last week’s announcement of additional protections for academic research institutions.
But Mendicino was vague about future measures, including whether the government would be willing to expel Chinese diplomats.
The Globe article said China’s former consul-general in Vancouver boasted in 2021 that she had helped defeat two Conservative MPs.
“We will always take whatever steps that are necessary if that means condemning hostile state actors,” Mendicino said. “We will do it. If that means taking other measures, then we will do it. And we’re eyes wide open about what those threats look like.”
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The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa has previously said China has always adhered to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said on Friday he would like to see a public registry of foreign actors created. Mendicino said late last year the Liberal government is preparing to consult the public on such a registry.
The minister promised the government is committed to being transparent with Canadians about the foreign threats the country faces, while ensuring such work to combat that interference is left to state agencies and public servants.
“National security is not a partisan issue,” he said.
Better collaboration to come after Emergencies Act report, Mendicino says
Mendicino also told Stephenson he was eager to act on recommendations to improve coordination with provinces and territories outlined in a landmark report on the use of the Emergencies Act to ensure those powers aren’t used again.
Justice Paul Rouleau on Friday delivered his highly-anticipated report on the response to the “Freedom Convoy” protests that shut down Ottawa and multiple border crossings last year. Rouleau, who led an independent public inquiry into the government’s unprecedented invocation of the emergency powers, found the move was warranted but that the emergency could have been avoided through better political and police collaboration.
Trudeau has promised his government will begin acting on the report’s 56 recommendations this year, which Mendicino says will include improving those intergovernmental ties.
“I think one of the important points going forward is to strengthen the collaboration, strengthen the coordination between all levels of government so that it never does get to a point where you need to invoke the Emergencies Act,” the minister said.
“There’s some concrete recommendations around policing and sharing of information and intelligence and even some of the tests that are in the the law itself. We’re going to study those very carefully.”
The report was particularly critical of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who was accused of not fully engaging in efforts to resolve the protests until it was too late. Mendicino did not say if he agreed with that finding, only reaffirming his commitment to strengthening provincial partnerships.
The inquiry’s finding amounts to a political win for Trudeau and his cabinet, who have maintained that the emergency powers were required as the protests spiraled out of control last February.
Rouleau’s report reflected heavily on how that spiral began, and how “lawful protest descended into lawlessness, culminating in a national emergency.”
Mendicino maintains the results of the Act’s invocation speak for themselves.
“We did not want to invoke the Act, but we did,” he said. “And it worked. And it resolved the blockades. No one got hurt. There were no fatalities. There was no significant damage to property.
“Now we have to set about looking at the recommendations that (Rouleau) was very thoughtful in writing.”
The minister also admitted there were “lessons” to be learned in how the government addressed the protesters themselves, which the report noted may have helped prolong the protest by inspiring participants to dig in.
Trudeau on Friday said he regrets not having “chosen my words more carefully” when describing demonstrators as a “fringe minority” who did not represent most Canadians’ desires to keep each other safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Mendicino defended the government’s overall approach to the pandemic — including measures opposed by the “Freedom Convoy” like vaccine mandates — while acknowledging the impact it had on many Canadians.
“There’s definitely some truth to the fact that Canadians were hurting throughout the pandemic,” he said. “And there’s also truth in the fact that we are live in a democracy and people have a fundamental right to express different points of view.
“But this was an important moment for us to act. We had a duty to act,” he added.