No foreign interference report more than one year after Liberal government re-elected
OTTAWA — Canadians still do not have access to an assessment of the work done by a panel tasked with flagging incidents of foreign interference during the last election in 2021.
The Critical Election Incident Public Protocol was created to monitor and report on threats to the 2019 election with a mandate to continue its work during future elections.
The protocol spells out the process of informing Canadians if there is a threat to an election. It is controlled by a panel of top public servants who must determine whether incidents of interference meet the threshold for telling the public.
A postelection assessment of how well that protocol functioned is also supposed to be made public.
An assessment was made public about seven months after the 2019 election, but a similar report for the 2021 campaign is still not available.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday he looks forward to seeing the report when it is complete, but he told reporters the public service is best placed to answer questions about why the report hasn't been released.
"We have heard from the panel that the election integrity held," he said in Halifax.
The Privy Council Office said the report "will be publicly available in due course."
Anna McGrath, the national director for the NDP, said in a written statement Thursday the report should have been prepared and that it should be released.
"It’s very important to Canadians that there be transparency and accountability on any issues of election interference. The more openness and transparency about this the better," she said.
An August 2021 Justice Department briefing document, obtained by The Canadian Press through access-to-information legislation, said the assessment report will be presented to the prime minister and members of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.
"A public version will also be developed," read the document, which was labelled as "secret."
The panel members, who were to work with national security agencies under their departments' mandates, did not make any announcements about foreign interference during the 2019 or 2021 elections.
The 2019 assessment report found the protocol used was successful and ready to alert Canadians of foreign interference if a situation warranted it.
It said the panel's determination about whether incidents of interference met the threshold for informing the public "required judgment, knowledge and context," as well as consensus. The report recommended the "high threshold" for doing so remain the same to "avoid the panel becoming a frequent intervener in any election."
However, media reports in recent weeks have alleged there was possible interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. That has drawn criticism from the Opposition Conservatives, who accused the government of leaving the public in the dark.
Reporting by the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper cited classified documents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that said China worked to ensure a Liberal minority government during the last election.
Trudeau told reporters in Halifax "there are so many inaccuracies in those leaks," but did not elaborate.
He also said the election protocol panel did not have to weigh in on the 2019 or 2021 votes and it did not highlight instances that suggested either election was compromised.
"That does not mean, nor have we ever contended, that there isn't ongoing efforts by countries like China to interfere in our democracies," Trudeau said
"That is something that we've been talking (about) — we talked about it when we set up these panels back in 2019."
The Conservative party said it is clear Trudeau's government was given detailed briefings on election interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
"Elections Canada should seek to obtain the information from those briefings so that they can conduct the appropriate investigations," said Sarah Fischer, the party's director of communications, in a written statement.
The party won't say if it was informed of any interference, or if it reported any alleged interference with the Conservatives or any of their candidates.
But former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu has previously expressed fears Canadian elections were being swayed by foreign governments. He lost his Vancouver-area seat in the 2021 election and claims he was the target of a pre-election misinformation campaign on Chinese-language social media.
His former seat was one of several the party lost in ridings that are home to many people of Chinese descent.
Walied Soliman, a lawyer who worked on the 2021 Conservative election campaign, recently said on social media that the party was never notified about any threats to the electoral process. Despite this, he said the party saw "clear signs of tampering in ridings with substantial Chinese diasporas" that were "never taken seriously."
Soliman said he was appointed by former party leader Erin O'Toole to serve as its representative on the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force. He also said the party continued working with the task force after the election, "providing everything we had."
According to the August 2021 briefing document, the task force was tapped to provide threat updates to the election protocol panel.
A report by the Canadian Election Misinformation Project, run out of McGill University, said it found that false or misleading claims about Conservatives began emerging on Chinese-language platforms following a September 2021 leaders' debate.
The report suggested that Chiu and a federal NDP candidate were both targeted by "Beijing-friendly individuals and organizations" in Vancouver.
The NDP said it did not report any election interference and was not informed of any election interference during the 2021 election.
A statement from Liberal party communications director Parker Lund did not say whether it informed the panel about any interference allegations or vice versa, saying the party "does not comment on specific security precautions."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2023.
David Fraser and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated that the panel completes a self-assessment of its communication with the public about foreign interference.