A House of Commons committee investigating allegations of foreign interference in recent federal elections adopted a motion on Thursday that calls for a public inquiry into the matter, but whether one will actually be launched remains unclear.
Conservative and Bloc Quebecois members of the House of Commons’ procedure and House affairs committee voted in favour of the NDP motion, which seeks to launch “a national public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canada’s democratic system.”
Liberal MPs on the committee voted against the measure.
Although it’s non-binding, the motion further ratchets up the pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has faced growing calls to launch an inquiry after multiple media reports detailed alleged attempts by China to influence Canadian society and elections.
The reports from Global News and the Globe and Mail have also called into question how much Trudeau and Canadian officials may have known about the alleged interference attempts, and whether the allegations should have been shared with the public earlier.
The NDP now plans to bring a similar motion to the House of Commons as a whole.
Specifically, the motion adopted in committee on Thursday notes that the committee cannot compel the government to launch a public inquiry. The motion also calls for any such inquiry to investigate “abuse of diaspora groups by hostile foreign governments,” and that it have the power to order and review any documents it deems necessary, including documents related to national security.
It calls for the person to head such an inquiry to be “selected by unanimous agreement by the House Leader’s of the officially recognized parties in the House of Commons” and notes that while the motion calls on the government to launch a public inquiry, the committee can’t compel them to do so.
Trudeau has so far resisted the inquiry calls, saying there are other procedures underway — including the House of Commons committee’s expanded probe — that are equipped to address the allegations.
He has also pointed to a report released this week that detailed the conclusion of a panel tasked with overseeing election integrity that the 2021 federal election was free and fair, despite attempts at interference that did not rise to the level of requiring a warning to voters.
However, that report suggested the threshold for the panel to notify the public in the event of such interference — which was also not met during the 2019 vote — should be lowered for future elections.
CSIS, Elections Canada heads testify
The motion was adopted at the end of a meeting that saw the heads of Canada’s intelligence agency and election body testify to lawmakers about foreign interference.
David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said foreign interference poses a “complex and enduring threat” to Canada but added the last two elections were not compromised by such “threat actors.”
The committee recently voted to expand its probe of foreign interference as reports from the Globe and Mail and Global News have detailed China’s wide-ranging attempts to influence the outcome of the 2019 and 2021 federal election.
Vigneault said he agreed with a report from the independent panel tasked with overseeing the elections that determined foreign interference did not affect their outcome.
The CSIS director provided a series of examples of methods foreign adversaries use to influence Canadians.
“Threat actors may also cultivate relationships with targets to manipulate them into providing favors and valuable information, or may conduct corrupt or financing activities. It is also important to note that threat actors may use others as proxies to conduct these activities on their behalf,” he said in French.
“These are just a few of the techniques that foreign state actors employ to influence public discourse, the behaviour of individual Canadians, and even our processes to their advantage. We have also observed them to deploy cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and espionage to these ends. Foreign interference is therefore a complex and enduring threat to Canada’s sovereignty.”
Vigneault added that CSIS takes foreign interference seriously, and he often briefs Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other ministers on the issue. He said it’s important to withhold certain information from the public because foreign governments are learning how CSIS works, the types of powers it has and what it can do.
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Meanwhile, the deputy commissioner of federal policing for the RCMP, Michael Duheme, said the Mounties did not receive any “actionable intelligence” about the last election that would lead to an investigation, and no charges have been laid into any allegations.
Earlier Thursday, the commissioner of Canada Elections told the committee her office is reviewing past complaints related to foreign interference. Caroline Simard said her office received 158 complaints related to 10 situations in the 2019 election, and 16 complaints related to 13 situations during the 2021 election.
It is not clear if any of those complaints were found to be actual cases of foreign interference.
She says two more complaints have been brought to her office since she last testified at the procedure and House affairs committee in November.
Over the last number of weeks, Global News and The Globe and Mail have revealed detailed reports showing the scope of China’s alleged efforts to influence Canadian society, including allegations of attempts to interfere in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
David Morrison, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, told the committee that he receives intelligence reports daily, and cautioned Canadians about what’s in them.
“Intelligence is not truth and it is often inaccurate, or partial, or incomplete, or designed to throw us off our track,” said Morrison, who has also served as acting national security adviser.
Morrison said Canadians would be better served “if the debate took into account what intelligence is and what intelligence is not.”
“Misreading or taking out of context an intelligence report can lead to divisiveness, which itself plays into the hands of our adversaries.”
—With files from The Canadian Press