Federal election watchdog launches review into foreign interference complaints

Commissioner of Canada Elections Caroline Simard waits to appear before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on Parliament Hill on March 2, 2023 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Commissioner of Canada Elections Caroline Simard waits to appear before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on Parliament Hill on March 2, 2023 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The commissioner of Canada Elections — the watchdog that enforces Canada's federal election laws — said Thursday her office has launched a review into allegations of foreign interference in the last two federal election campaigns.

In response to recent reports about Chinese interference in Canada's democracy, Caroline Simard said Thursday that her office has received serious complaints about meddling that demand a closer look.

Simard said her office — which probes all alleged election violations, not just claims of foreign meddling — received 158 complaints concerning the 2019 election dealing with "10 situations." There have been 16 complaints regarding "13 situations" in the 2021 campaign. Simard said all of those complaints have since been resolved.

After Global News reported claims last fall that China operates "a vast campaign of foreign interference" in Canadian politics, Simard said her office received three more complaints about Beijing's alleged meddling.

Work is underway now to determine whether there's merit to those complaints, she said.

"I am seized with the importance of this issue … as well as the need to reassure Canadians under these exceptional circumstances," Simard said.

"We have conducted a rigorous and thorough review of every complaint and every piece of information that has been brought to our attention concerning allegations of foreign interference," she said. "This review is ongoing as I speak, to see if there's tangible evidence of wrongdoing under the Canada Elections Act."

WATCH | Trudeau's national security adviser grilled over foreign meddling:

Simard said her office's work is conducted impartially; there's no link between her office and the federal government of the day, the public service or Elections Canada, the federal body that actually runs elections.

Canada's election laws forbid anyone who is not a Canadian citizen or permanent resident from contributing to political parties, candidates, electoral district associations, or leadership and nomination contestants. Foreign entities also can't contribute to "third parties" registered to spend in an election.

During an election period, it is also illegal for any foreign person or entity to "unduly influence" an elector to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate or registered party.

Last month, Global News cited unnamed sources saying that national security officials briefed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about Liberal MP Han Dong.

The news outlet said CSIS has identified Dong as "a witting affiliate in China's election interference networks." Global also reported Dong was one of the 11 candidates allegedly supported by Beijing in the 2019 election.

CSIS reportedly told Trudeau that China's consulate in Toronto floated cash to at least 11 federal election candidates "and numerous Beijing operatives" who worked as campaign staffers.

Global said Dong was preferred over another candidate because he was considered "a close friend of the Toronto Consulate."

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The news outlet said Chinese international students with fake addresses allegedly were bussed into Dong's Toronto-area riding and coerced to vote in his favour at a nomination meeting.

Asked about the legality of foreign sources paying for buses to support a nomination candidate, Stéphane Perrault, the chief electoral officer of Elections Canada, said such activity would be a clear violation of the Canada Elections Act.

Paying for buses would be considered "a contribution in-kind." Only a Canadian citizen or permanent resident can make that sort of donation.

He said that if Elections Canada received a complaint like this, it would be referred to Simard's office for an investigation.

Senior official raises questions about 'intelligence'

The Critical Election Incident Public Protocol (CEIPP) is an independent panel that was struck by the Liberal government to monitor incidents that threaten an election's integrity.

David Morrison, the deputy minister of foreign affairs and a member of the CEIPP, told MPs on the procedure and House affairs committee Thursday that, while the panel received reports about alleged foreign interference, the body concluded that this interference did not threaten Canada's ability to have a free and fair election in 2021.

The panel did not act because the information it received about possible meddling didn't meet a "very high threshold" to go public with any concerns, Morrison said.

Morrison, who is one of the country's top bureaucrats, also cautioned MPs about some of the supposed "intelligence" that has been leaked and reported in the press. He said that MPs, the media and the public need to be "clear-eyed" about the value of intelligence.

He said intelligence gathered by CSIS or other national security bodies "rarely paints a full or concrete or actionable picture. Intelligence almost always comes heavily caveated and qualified."

Invoking the faulty "intelligence" used by U.S. officials to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Morrison said intelligence is routinely wrong. Intelligence, he said, is not necessarily an account of what happened but is rather an account of what someone said might have happened.

"Intel that gets leaked and is then taken out of context, for example a report from a single, uncorroborated source, if that report instantly becomes taken as fact, this can actually be prejudicial to Canada's national security," Morrison said.

"There is nothing our adversaries would like more than to divide Canadians and call into question the very institutions that keep us safe and free, including our electoral processes.

"Intelligence needs to be seen for what it is and what it is not and if that doesn't happen, we will all end up much worse off."

WATCH | MPs discuss foreign interference 

China is the 'principal threat' to Canada: CSIS

David Vigneault, the director of CSIS, told MPs that he wasn't able to confirm media reports that some candidates have been co-opted by Chinese agents.

Vigneault said national security law requires that he remain tight-lipped about intelligence collected and shared with the prime minister and his cabinet.

He said CSIS has launched an investigation to find out who leaked sensitive details of the allegations to the Globe and Mail and Global News.

Vigneault said, however, that the People's Republic of China is the "principal threat" to Canada and its institutions.

He said Canada's spy agency "takes allegations of foreign interference very seriously" and vowed to "use its authorities" to try to "reduce the threat."

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

When asked why there are no pending criminal investigations into foreign election interference, Vigneault acknowledged it's difficult to use intelligence in a criminal case.

The standards in a court of law are different from the standards used in the gathering of intelligence.

CSIS is also concerned about protecting its methods, its operations, its human and technical sources and employees, so there are limits on what the agency can freely shared with the RCMP, he said.

"It's a complex process. Intelligence is not a question of evidence," Vigneault said.

"Challenges exist in using intelligence and passing it on to law enforcement. Using intelligence to pursue law enforcement matters continues to be a challenge that a number of organizations are actively working on."

Michel Duheme is the deputy commissioner of federal policing with the RCMP. He said the force is "not investigating any elements from the 2019 or the 2021 elections."

"We did not receive any actionable intelligence that warrant us to initiate a criminal investigation. No charges have been laid," he said.