Chinese Canadian MPs and senators are among those who are “greater targets” for foreign interference efforts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.
Trudeau made the comments to reporters in Winnipeg on Friday as pressure grows on the federal government to call a public inquiry over reports of attempted Chinese interference in Canadian elections and society.
“We know that Chinese Canadian parliamentarians, and Chinese Canadians in general, are greater targets for interference by China than others,” he said.
“We know the same goes for Iranian Canadians, who are more subject to interference from the Iranian government. Russian speakers in Canada are more vulnerable to Russian misinformation and disinformation, and we get updated regularly on how we can make sure that our integrity and that the work that Canadians do to serve in politics is done with full protections.”
Read more: Most Canadians believe China did try to interfere in elections - poll
Trudeau had been asked a question regarding a Global News investigative report that cited information from intelligence officials who allegedly provided Trudeau’s party with an urgent, classified briefing in late September 2019 regarding Toronto-area Liberal candidate Han Dong.
The sources said that over the summer, CSIS had been tracking Dong — a former Ontario Liberal MPP — because they were concerned he had replaced Don Valley North Liberal incumbent Geng Tan under what they thought were suspicious circumstances.
They were concerned that Dong was believed to be the favoured candidate of officials in the Toronto Chinese consulate, according to an official with direct awareness of the alleged threat brief about Dong.
Responding to questions from Global News for the story, Dong has denied the allegations and on Monday stated he would defend himself. Trudeau defended Dong on Monday, saying he’s “an outstanding member of our team and suggestions that he is somehow not loyal to Canada should not be entertained.”
Will there be a public inquiry?
Trudeau also didn’t directly answer questions on Friday regarding whether he would support a public inquiry into allegations of attempts by China to interfere in recent Canadian elections.
On Thursday, a House of Commons committee investigating the allegations called for a public inquiry into the matter.
Conservative and Bloc Québécois members of the procedure and House affairs committee voted in favour of an NDP motion that seeks to launch “a national public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canada’s democratic system.”
Whether one will be launched remains unclear. Liberal MPs on the committee voted against the measure.
Although it’s non-binding, the motion further ratchets up the pressure on 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, which resumes on Monday.
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 for it to 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 it 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.
“All these processes are going on and demonstrate the seriousness with which this government in this country needs to take the question of foreign interference,” Trudeau said Friday.
“As these processes unfold, I’m sure they will highlight more that we need to do … and we will be there to do whatever is necessary to meet two goals: First of all, to ensure that our election integrity holds, that our democracy is defended against foreign interference; and second, that Canadians can have confidence in our institutions, in our democracies, in our ability to defend ourselves.”
Joly confronts Chinese counterpart at G20
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly’s office said Friday she met with her Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in India and brought up the issue of alleged interference.
Her office said Joly was “direct, firm and unequivocal” that Canada “will never tolerate any form of foreign interference in our democracy and internal affairs from China.”
“We will never accept any breach of our territorial integrity and sovereignty,” her office said.
“We will never accept any breach by Chinese diplomats of the Vienna Convention on Canada’s soil.”
The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is a United Nations treaty governing the conduct of and expectations for diplomats around the world. It lays out what diplomatic missions can and cannot do, and the expectations for how they will be treated by the states where they operate.
Joly’s remarks appear to stem from calls from Canada’s former ambassador to China, David Mulroney, who told MPs sitting on a committee studying foreign interference on Feb. 7 that Ottawa must be prepared to expel Chinese diplomats if they are found to be involved in interference or harassment.
Qin’s office, meanwhile, refuted allegations that Chinese embassies and consulates were trying to interfere in Canadian elections and society. He said the alleged interference was “completely false and nonsensical,” and that China firmly opposes it.
“The Canadian side should take practical measures to ensure the normal performance of duties of Chinese diplomatic missions in Canada, and prevent rumours and speculation from interfering with the relations between both countries,” his office said.
— with files from Global News’ Sam Cooper, Sean Boynton and Reuters