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Chinese interference: What government documents tell us about election meddling – National


Government documents released earlier this week confirm that the Privy Council Office, the nerve center of the federal bureaucracy which supports Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, had signs of Beijing’s alleged attempts to interfere with the 2019 general election.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair acknowledged having seen the memo while he was public safety minister to reporters on Friday, adding that its determinations “certainly” played a role in shaping increased government focus on electoral interference.

Blair is the first cabinet minister to directly acknowledge having seen the document, which states that investigations into the 2019 election revealed “an active foreign interference (FI) network” under the heading of “Canada-China.”

Click to play video: 'No evidence of foreign interference in 2019 and 2021 elections: Blair'

No evidence of foreign interference in 2019 and 2021 elections: Blair

“As the minister of public safety and as a member of our cabinet, I am periodically given briefings on classified material. I am aware of that memo and received certain information of it, but I don’t have it and I’m not able to share the details.”

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Blair was then asked by a reporter whether any of the increased efforts on electoral interference in recent years was in response to that memo.

“Certainly,” he said. “The excellent work that’s done by our national security intelligence agencies and the briefings that the national security intelligence advisor, CSIS and others have provided to our government have informed our work. We understand the importance of maintaining the integrity of our electoral systems. That is work that we have always been committed to and remain committed to, and it’s been informed by advice that we receive from our officials.”

But the heavily censored documents do not make clear where PCO obtained that intelligence, who precisely was made aware of the alleged “subtle but effective” interference network — and what, ultimately, Trudeau’s government did about it.

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Secret 2020 Privy Council Office memo found ‘active foreign interference network’ in 2019 election

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  • Secret 2020 Privy Council Office memo found ‘active foreign interference network’ in 2019 election

The Feb. 20, 2020, document states that investigations into the 2019 election revealed “an active foreign interference (FI) network” under the heading of “Canada-China.”

Most of the rest of the “daily intelligence brief,” produced by bureaucrats at PCO’s Intelligence Assessment Secretariat, is censored. But it provides a glimpse into what and when the government knew about alleged clandestine attempts to interfere in the 2019 federal election.

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Global News reported in November that Trudeau and some members of his cabinet were allegedly briefed starting in January 2022 that the Chinese Consulate in Toronto directed a clandestine election interference network in 2019.

Sources told Global News the network included a loosely affiliated group of political actors that included Liberals and Conservatives benefited from funding from the Chinese Communist Party, ostensibly to benefit that regime’s political objectives in Canada.

Click to play video: 'RCMP foreign interference investigators visit BC society friendship'

RCMP foreign interference investigators visit BC friendship society

The 2019 election was the first time the Canadian government made a real push to address foreign interference in domestic elections, largely influenced by Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election that saw Donald Trump come to power.

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The PCO prove that senior bureaucrats and politicians documents were very much aware of Beijing’s alleged attempted influence operations just months after the 2019 election, which saw the Conservatives take a hard line on China-Canada relations and the Liberals returned to power with a minority government.

It is important to note — as Trudeau and various senior officials have since Global News published the report — that a committee of senior bureaucrats did not believe the interference compromised the integrity of the overall election results.

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Conservatives believe 13 ridings were targeted by foreign interference in 2021 election

But that doesn’t mean it had no effect — particularly in ridings in the electorally all-important Greater Toronto Area.

Who saw the intelligence briefing?

PCO won’t say. Global News asked for the distribution list for this particular memo, and PCO declined to provide it.

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“The Daily Foreign Intelligence Brief (DFIB) is made available to a select number of officials on a need-to-know basis,” PCO said in a statement.

A former intelligence official, who requested anonymity to discuss a politically sensitive topic, said that the distribution list would vary based on the topic, but given the highly-sensitive nature of foreign intelligence, it would be restricted to those who need to know.

Canada does not have a formal foreign intelligence agency, so the sources for the document would vary, the source said.

If the election wasn’t compromised, who cares?

While the overall integrity of the vote apparently wasn’t compromised — Canada employs a paper-ballot system that is hard to hack — the potential for foreign interference in specific ridings and communities remains a serious problem for intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Part of the problem is that a significant amount of what might be called “foreign interference” is not technically illegal.

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Canada struggles with curbing foreign interference: ‘Often we cannot do anything’

“There are several situations not covered by the Lobbying Act and the Conflict of Interest Act, such as for instance an agent undertaking communication activity or engaging in a big disbursement of activities on behalf of a foreign government,” read a December 2020 email from an unnamed Global Affairs Canada bureaucrat uncovered by Global News.

“Some of these activities would be covered if happening under election periods by the Canada Elections Act, but foreign interference is not limited to those periods.”

So while the overall election may not have been compromised, specific communities may have been targeted by disinformation or more aggressive forms of coercion — something that both intelligence agencies and close observers have warned about for years.

Where does that leave things now?

Two House of Commons committees — the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC), and the special Canada-People’s Republic of China Committee — have been investigating these issues. After Global published its first report, Trudeau committed to officials turning over relevant documents and evidence to PROC that related to alleged Chinese interference.

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“We obviously have been aware for a long time that foreign interference is a real thing: against our institutions, against our communities, against Canadians,” Trudeau told reporters this week.

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Canadian officials knew for years existing laws didn’t curb foreign influence

“What I can say, as I’ve said many times, we set up specifically for this purpose an elections oversight panel to make sure that foreign interference did not have an impact on our election or our electoral process. And in both 2019 and 2021 Canadians can be reassured that our election integrity held.”

That may be the case, but it is also the case that senior intelligence officials and politicians believe that this activity is ongoing. What remains to be seen is what they’ll do about it.


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