It’s been a good few years for foreign actors looking to sow division and doubt in western democracies, from the Brexit referendum in 2016 to Donald Trump’s win later that year and the controversy over the supposedly “stolen” U.S. election four years later.
Now, it seems the spotlight has shifted to Canada, where a series of leaks from the intelligence community about Chinese interference in our elections has triggered a national conversation about the integrity of the 2019 and 2021 votes — and a potential crisis for the Trudeau Liberals.
Attempts by foreign governments to influence Canadian elections are hardly new. And while hostile powers like China and Russia are at the forefront of our collective imagination right now, it’s actually the Americans who have most frequently been involved. Most (in)famously, the John F. Kennedy administration that sent their polling guru to help the Liberals defeat John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives in the 1962 and 1963 campaigns. In more recent times, we’ve seen former U.S. presidents offer official endorsements of Canadian parties, along with a steady flow of professional campaign staff and their methods across the border.
But when openly hostile foreign governments that kidnap Canadian citizens send large quantities of money and manpower to help sway the outcome of an election, that’s a different kind of threat. And according to allegations reported by both the Globe and Mail and Global News, that’s exactly what happened in 2021. The stories indicate the Chinese government targeted a small handful of ridings in the Greater Toronto and Greater Vancouver areas in the hopes of helping secure a Liberal minority government.
Wesley Wark, a national security expert who recently retired from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and served two terms on the prime minister’s Advisory Council on National Security (2005 to 2009) and the Advisory Committee to the President of the Canada Border Services Agency (2006 to 2010), suggested we should be wary of taking these allegations at face value. “There is a difference between understanding the bad intentions of a foreign actor to interfere in our democratic processes and appreciating whether those intentions were actually carried out in any meaningful, impactful way,” he wrote on his Substack. “Not all boasts intercepted by CSIS from Chinese consular officials should be taken as gospel truth.”
As CSIS director David Vigneault told a parliamentary committee on Thursday, there were no “major” incidents of foreign election interference — at least, as determined by a panel of five senior public servants charged with assessing the matter. We also have a report by Morris Rosenberg, a longtime public servant and former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs under Stephen Harper, who was tasked by the federal government to assess the prospect of interference in our elections and what should be done to prevent it. His report, which landed Friday, made a series of recommendations on how the government could improve both the security of our elections and the public’s understanding of that.
But these sorts of sober-minded conclusions don’t stand a chance in our digital information ecosystem, where the discourse remains intoxicated by partisanship and performative outrage. It doesn’t help when journalists like John Ivison talk about “collusion” and the possibility the Liberals were “co-conspirators” in the Chinese government’s efforts despite no actual evidence to that effect. Layer in a very timely leak about the Trudeau Foundation accepting donations from Chinese sources — and Rosenberg’s previous role as its executive director — and you have all the ingredients you’d need for a political hot potato.
It didn’t take long to bake, either. According to a fresh batch of data from Angus Reid, 42 per cent of past Conservative voters now think the 2019 and 2021 elections were “stolen” due to Chinese involvement. For the folks who buy their tinfoil in bulk, this new belief about stolen elections will fit nicely alongside their existing ones about the pandemic, climate change, and the World Economic Forum. But it’s the two-thirds of respondents in that same poll who think there was an attempt by China to interfere with our recent elections that should worry everyone. Trust is a finite and perishable asset, and once it’s gone, it’s very hard to get it back.
There’s no way for the Trudeau Liberals to get all of this toothpaste back in the tube, especially when conservative politicians and pundits are squeezing it as hard as they can. But the party does need to at least try to clean up as much of the mess as it can, and it won’t do that by continuing to minimize or dismiss the seriousness of this situation. Instead, they need to go in the other direction and expand the conversation to include all the various attempts — both foreign and domestic — to influence our elections. As Rosenberg wrote in his report, “Foreign actors can exploit the free speech protections possessed by Canadians to sow disinformation. This is an area that can benefit from research to better understand these relationships.”
Indeed. That’s why Canada needs some sort of public inquiry, one that examines all of the potential sources of interference in our democratic process. Yes, it will be a distraction for the government, and it may well reveal information it doesn’t find flattering. But as Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s former principal secretary, told the Globe and Mail: “The radical changes in geopolitics and technological advancements of the past several years mean we’re in a different, more dangerous world where many foreign actors have an interest in harming democratic institutions and the capacity to do it… We should be confident in our democratic institutions, but we should guard them aggressively.”
If we don’t, we risk further undermining the public’s confidence in our elections — and perhaps their willingness to support and protect them. In America, democracy is very clearly under attack, both from within and without. If we want Canada to avoid the same fate, our government needs to act decisively.