O’Toole made the comments Tuesday from the floor of the House of Commons, within which MPs are protected by parliamentary privilege from civil or criminal prosecution under freedom of speech provisions. His speech comes after a briefing with CSIS last week.
“I also believe my privileges as a Member and officer of Parliament were infringed by the government’s unwillingness or inability to act on the intelligence related to foreign interference,” O’Toole said.
“The briefing confirmed to me what I had long suspected – that my party, several of my caucus colleagues and myself were the target of a sophisticated misinformation and voter suppression campaign orchestrated by the People’s Republic of China before and during the 2021 general election.”
The issue of foreign interference in Canadian elections — chiefly from the Chinese government — has dominated federal political discussions for months. After media reports citing leaked documents by Global News and the Globe and Mail, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed former governor general David Johnston as a “special rapporteur” on foreign interference.
The opposition New Democrats, who have propped up the minority Liberal government, are now calling on Johnston to resign after he recommended against a public inquiry into foreign interference – a decision that has faced intense scrutiny and criticism since he announced it last week.
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Months of media reporting, relying on national security sources and leaked documents, revealed that Conservative MP Michael Chong’s family was targeted by Chinese officials miffed about the Ontario MPs support for a motion to recognize China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority as genocide.
But targeting the leader of the Conservatives — and a potential prime minister — is another matter.
“The Communist government’s ideal outcome is to have its critics pull their punches and turn a blind eye. It is to create, at the end of the day, a chilling effect on public policy and a chilling effect on parliamentary debate,” O’Toole said.
“This novel and expanding situation of foreign interference in our politics, seeking to silence the debates of this Parliament, must be met and our parliamentary democracy must be defended.”
O’Toole broke down four separate “categories of threats” he said CSIS briefed him on. Those categories included foreign funding and the alleged payment of funds from China through its United Front Work Department to create “misinformation” targeting O’Toole, as well as the use of workers with the United Front Work Department to amplify misinformation.
The third category of threat he says CSIS identified was the use of social media app WeChat to spread and amplify that misinformation, while the fourth category of threat was voter suppression efforts targeting him, the Conservative Party, and one candidate in 2021.
O’Toole led the Conservatives into the 2021 general election after winning the party leadership just a year before.
Part of O’Toole’s leadership pitch was to take a tough stance against Beijing, including recognizing the Chinese regime’s persecution of the country’s Uyghur minority as a genocide, repatriating and diversifying Canadian supply chains away from China, and cracking down on foreign influence.
Those pledges came through in the Conservatives’ 2021 election platform, which contained 31 references to “China” and 10 references to “Chinese.”
“We must stand up to the Communist government of China,” the platform read.
“The communist leadership represents a clear and rising threat to Canadian interests – and our values. They’ve abducted our citizens, targeted our economy, and intimidated members of the Chinese Canadian community.”
After the party’s disappointing performance in the 2021 election, O’Toole was attacked by the Chinese-Canadian Conservative Association (CCCA) – a group which purports to represent Conservatives of Chinese descent – who called on him to resign as leader.
A source close to O’Toole’s 2021 campaign told Global News that it was an active discussion within the party about how strong a stand to take against Beijing. The O’Toole campaign knew that taking a tough line on China’s communist government could cost them votes, or make them a target of Beijing.
Global News reported in December 2021 that the Conservatives had identified 13 ridings where they believe the party was targeted by foreign influence campaigns. A source told Global the party suspected mail-in ballot fraud, foreign funding of campaign workers, and illegal advertising – although the party had no evidence a foreign government was involved.
Fred DeLorey was the national campaign manager for the Conservatives in 2021. He said what O’Toole laid out in the House of Commons “confirms a lot of what we had suspected.”
“A lot of what we found then has been confirmed to us now,” DeLorey said.
DeLorey said that while the Conservative party had seen a number of concerning issues during the 2021 federal election campaign, the party received warnings from ridings once the contest had been decided, prompting its local campaign teams to investigate.
DeLorey said the party first communicated its concerns about potential foreign interference while the election was still underway by notifying the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force, a group that had been set up by the government to safeguard Canada’s electoral process.
“We raised our concerns with them — and basically, we were met with shrugs,” DeLorey said.
“It was incredibly frustrating,” he added. “The security establishment was telling us that there’s gaps in the legislation, so what are those gaps? And how do we plug this to make sure this stuff does not happen again?”
David Johnston, the former governor general appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a special rapporteur on foreign interference, recommended last week that the government not hold a public inquiry into the issue.
Johnston argued that the secret intelligence Canada has collected on foreign interference could not be aired in public, so a public inquiry would not be helpful. The opposition parties are still pushing the government to hold an inquiry despite Johnston’s recommendations.
In his report, Johnston said that officials were unable to tie misinformation about the Conservative campaign “to a state-sponsored source.”
“Mr. O’Toole continued to assert over the next several months that (the People’s Republic of China) interference cost the party eight or nine seats,” Johnston’s report read.
“It is hard to accept this assertion, which has been rejected by the (Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections) Task Force and the 2021 panel.”
Johnston has said he cannot disclose exactly what evidence he saw that led him to his conclusions, leaving unanswered questions about his report and the information underlying it.
DeLorey praised Johnston’s report, warning that unless parliamentarians of all stripes put partisan politics aside and work together to address foreign interference, Canada will be ill-prepared to counter the threat that it continues to pose.
“We’re going to be going into another election and not have any actual solution to this problem, which should concern all Canadians,” he said.
With files from Marc-André Cossette