Attempted interference in 2021 election did not compromise the result: report

A new report says that attempts to interfere in the 2021 election did not affect the results. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press - image credit)
A new report says that attempts to interfere in the 2021 election did not affect the results. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press - image credit)

A panel of top civil servants has concluded that attempts to interfere with the 2021 federal election did not affect the results, according to an assessment of their work released Tuesday.

But the report also says Ottawa should consider changing the rules to allow the panel to alert Canadians to "potential" impacts on election integrity.

The federal government established the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol in 2019 to monitor and alert the public to credible threats to Canada's elections. The team is a panel of top public servants tasked with determining whether incidents of interference meet the threshold for warning the public.

The government released a redacted copy of the independent report assessing the panel's work on Tuesday.

"In 2019 and 2021, the panel, as part of the Protocol, determined that the Government of Canada did not detect foreign interference that threatened Canada's ability to have free and fair elections," the assessment, written by former public servant  Morris Rosenberg, says.

While the report notes there were attempts at interference, it says those attempts didn't compromise the integrity of the election.

"National security agencies saw attempts at foreign interference, but not enough to have met the threshold of impacting electoral integrity," the report says.

The report specifically notes that there is no evidence to suggest that attempted interference targeted Elections Canada itself.

Dennis Molinaro, a professor of legal studies at Ontario Tech University and a former national security analyst, said Canada needs to remain diligent despite the report's findings.

"We definitely shouldn't be taking this as a sign that everything is fine," Molinaro said. "If someone is continually trying to break into your home and they keep getting better at it every time, that doesn't mean that there's no threat to be worried about."

WATCH | Ottawa prepared to implement report recommendations: LeBlanc

The report did make a number of recommendations for the government to consider.

The panel is tasked with alerting the public to any attempts at electoral interference that would have a demonstrable impact on the outcome of an election. But the report says that the government should consider amending the threshold so that an alert is issued when there is evidence of a "potential impact."

"How [is the panel] to assess, within the brief period of an election campaign, what the impact is?" the report says.

"How are they to determine how many Canadians have been exposed to false information? How are they to distinguish the impact of interference or disinformation from the variety of other factors that voters take into account?"

The report also recommends that the panel's scope be expanded to include the period leading up to an election campaign.

Speaking to CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the government is prepared to move forward with the recommendations.

"We need to be ready to put all of the safeguards in place to reassure Canadians," LeBlanc told host David Cochrane. "That's what we've done, but we'll continue to look at ways we can improve it."

Concerns about Beijing

The report notes that security agencies, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), have raised concerns about China's attempts to interfere in the electoral process.

"CSIS stated that China uses many techniques, including threats to the Chinese community in Canada. However, the use of proxy agents makes it difficult to know that China is behind it," the report says.

The report recommends that the relationship between diaspora communities in Canada and their former home states be analyzed. But the report cautioned against stirring up a backlash against specific communities.

"There are risks that concerns about foreign interference from a particular country can result in resentment and backlash against members of these communities," the report says. "Strategies to counter foreign interference need to guard against marginalizing diaspora communities."

While some examples have been redacted, the report cites a 2021 editorial in the Global Times — a tabloid with connections to the Chinese Communist Party — which blasted the Conservative Party election platform and suggested that the party would break off relations with China.

The report also points to an article that circulated on WeChat — a Chinese-owned messaging app — falsely claiming a bill introduced by former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu would unfairly target the Chinese community.

Prior to the 2021 election, Chiu introduced a private members' bill that would establish a foreign agent registry which would require non-elected individuals to declare when they receive money from foreign governments. Chiu lost his seat in that election.

Despite these instances, LeBlanc said he didn't believe that the results of any specific ridings were affected.

WATCH | Government 'slow' to react to Chinese foreign interference: former ambassador

But Canada's former ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques said there are still lingering questions about election integrity.

"There's still a cloud on the integrity of the election," Saint-Jacques said in a separate interview with Power & Politics. "Canadians have lots of questions and we need to get to the bottom of this."

The Liberal government has been under pressure to respond to a number of media reports that allege China sought to interfere in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said on more than one occasion that those news reports are false or contain inaccuracies.

But Saint-Jacques suggested that the news reports warrant a more thorough look at the 2019 and 2021 elections.

Conservatives call report into question

Rosenberg served as a senior public servant for more than 30 years in multiple departments and under Conservative and Liberal governments

From 2014 to 2018 he also served as CEO of the Trudeau Foundation, which funds and promote academic and public interest research. His tenure was marked by controversy when it was revealed that Zhang Bin, an adviser to the Chinese government, attended a private fundraising dinner with Prime Minister Trudeau and donated thousands of dollars to the charity that bears his father's name.

Even before Rosenberg's report was made public Tuesday, the Conservative Party said those ties discredit his work.

"The Trudeau government must ensure that the very credible reports on election interference are investigated in a meaningful and impartial manner, rather than trying to spin them as unimportant as they clearly have tried to do here," the party said in a media statement.

"This discredits the report and proves we need a separate investigation, and the government should fully cooperate with the House committee studying this very issue. They must cease their obstructionism, and the NDP must stop protecting the Liberals in committee so Canadians can finally discover the extent of [Chinese Communist Party] interference."

LeBlanc brushed the Conservatives' assertions off, calling them a "gratuitous smear."

Opposition parties have been calling on the government to strike a public inquiry to study foreign election interference. So far, the Liberals have resisted.