MPs agree to probe allegations of Chinese interference in federal elections

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has accused the federal government of sitting on its hands in the face of an alleged Chinese threat to Canadian elections. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has accused the federal government of sitting on its hands in the face of an alleged Chinese threat to Canadian elections. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A multi-partisan group of MPs on the procedure and House affairs committee agreed Monday to probe claims that the People's Republic of China (PRC) and its agents have interfered in the Canadian political process.

Citing unnamed sources, Global News reported last week that China was behind "a vast campaign of foreign inference" in Canadian politics.

That campaign reportedly included "a clandestine network" of candidates in the 2019 election, a movement to place "agents into the offices of MPs in order to influence policy," an attempt to "co-opt and corrupt former Canadian officials to gain leverage in Ottawa" and a campaign to "punish Canadian politicians whom the People's Republic of China views as threats to its interests."

Global reported that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and some cabinet ministers were briefed by intelligence agencies on these foreign interference allegations in January.

'No one has been expelled ... no one has been charged'

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

Conservative MP Michael Cooper requested Monday's emergency meeting — a meeting he said was necessary because something must be done to stop a "sophisticated campaign" by the Chinese communist regime to "subvert Canadian democracy."

Cooper said it was "disturbing" to hear that the prime minister was briefed on these allegations earlier this year "and yet nothing appears to have been done" to curb China's alleged advances.

"No one has been expelled from Canada, no one has been charged. There have been no apparent investigations undertaken and there has been no action taken on the part of the government to respond legislatively," he said.

"This interference is simply intolerable. It is unacceptable."

Liberal MPs on the committee agreed to study the matter but questioned Cooper's assertion that the government hasn't done anything to address the Chinese threat.

They said little is actually known publicly about what the government has done to stop alleged Chinese meddling. They also objected to a Conservative request for the government to table documents on the affair, saying such a move would reveal state secrets to bad actors like China, Russia and Iran.

Liberal MP Greg Fergus said the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), the secretive group of parliamentarians that reviews matters of national security, would be best placed to review documents.

"This is not the right place," he said before successfully amending Cooper's motion.

Liberal MP Jennifer O'Connell said she's relieved "Conservatives have finally woken up to foreign interference," suggesting the Tories have been reluctant to engage on this issue in the past.

WATCH | MPs discuss probe into alleged Chinese interference

"The Conservatives have sat on their hands when it comes to fighting foreign interference. They stood outside these doors and stood with convoy members suggesting the entire government be overthrown," O'Connell said, referring to some of the self-styled Freedom Convoy protesters who sought to replace Trudeau during the anti-vaccine mandate protests on Parliament Hill.

"Where did they stand on protecting our democracy then?" she asked.

Trudeau said last week the world is changing, "sometimes in quite scary ways," and that some state actors are determined to meddle in the affairs of well-functioning democracies

"Unfortunately, we're seeing that countries, state actors from around the world, whether it's China or others, are continuing to play aggressive games with our institutions, with our democracies," Trudeau said.

"We need to make sure that those who are tasked with keeping us safe every single day are able to do that, and that's why we'll continue to invest in some of the tools and resources necessary to do that," he said, pointing to investments in intelligence agencies.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has blasted Trudeau over his handling of the alleged Chinese interference, saying the procedure and House affairs committee (PROC) needs to look at "what the prime minister knew, what he is going to do about it and how we're going to protect our democracy from foreign interference."

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

But Akshay Singh, an international affairs and security scholar at the University of Ottawa, told CBC's Power & Politics that MPs might have few legislative tools to address foreign interference.

"What ends up happening is there are a lot of investigations that happen, there's a lot of information that's collected and advice is provided to the government. But the actual tools required to perhaps prevent the activity in the future, or to to litigate it, to prosecute it, don't necessarily exist" Singh told host David Cochrane.

Singh said one possible option for MPs to explore would be a foreign agent registry which would require non-elected individuals to declare when they receive money from foreign governments.

Former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu brought forward a private member's bill to establish such a registry in 2021 but it died when the House of Commons was dissolved for the last election.

WATCH | Canadians 'waking up' to challenge of Chinese foreign interference, expert says

PROC was  studying foreign election interference already before the Global story on China was published.

Speaking to MPs earlier this month, Michelle Tessier, the deputy director of operations for CSIS, said that the spy agency is "increasingly concerned" about China's attempts to influence Canadian politics.

"They are an actor in foreign interference and we have said that publicly," Tessier told MPs.

"We are concerned about the activities regarding threats against the security of Canada, including foreign interference by the Chinese Communist Party."

As part of its study, the committee will recall witnesses it has heard from already in its ongoing probe, including officials from CSIS, Elections Canada and the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force.

It will also call Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and the current national security adviser to the prime minister to testify.