Special watchdog to oversee foreign interference investigations: PM Trudeau

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday he will appoint a new independent watchdog with a "wide mandate" to investigate foreign interference in Canada and recommend how to better respond to the challenge.

The move does not include calling a public inquiry into allegations of foreign meddling in Canada's elections, against the explicit demands of opposition parties. But Trudeau left the door open to taking that step if the "special rapporteur" he appoints to thinks one is warranted.

"All political leaders agree that the election outcomes in 2019, and in 2021, were not impacted by foreign interference," Trudeau said Monday evening at a news conference on Parliament Hill.

"But even if it didn’t change the results of our elections: any interference attempt, by any foreign actor, is troubling and serious."

The Liberal government is facing heavy criticism that it did not act when warned that China was trying to influence the outcome of the 2021 federal election, or that a Liberal candidate nomination had been targeted in 2019.

The Globe and Mail, citing classified records from Canada's spy agency, reported last month that China worked to help ensure a Liberal minority victory in 2021, as well as defeat Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing.

A Global News report cited anonymous sources alleging the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had urged senior Liberal party staff to rescind Han Dong's nomination in a Toronto riding in 2019 due to alleged Chinese interference in his bid to become the Liberal candidate.

Dong, who won the riding for the Liberals in 2019 and 2021, said his nomination and campaign teams have found no indication of irregularities or compliance issues regarding his candidacy or election. Trudeau said last week that it is not up to "unelected security officials" to tell political parties who can and cannot run for office and denied that it would happen.

In addition to appointing an "eminent Canadian" as special rapporteur, Trudeau said he is asking both the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency to take on "urgent work" on foreign interference.

The former, a group of MPs from all parties and one senator who all have top-level security clearance, will launch a new study on foreign interference focused on elections.

The agency, which has a mandate to review the work of Canada's intelligence agencies, will look at the work those agencies have done on foreign interference.

Opposition parties have been demanding a full public inquiry to probe what the government knew about attempts by foreign governments to meddle in elections.

Trudeau has resisted the calls.

His new plan Monday did not fulfil their desire for such an inquiry.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said earlier Monday they will not accept any process to investigate the depth of foreign meddling in Canadian elections that is not as transparent as possible.

The work of the intelligence committee and agency is largely done in secret. Their reports are made public, although with redactions for national security concerns.

Poilievre said he cannot accept a "secretive process that will never bring about the truth."

He said anything that would require Conservative MPs to keep quiet about information they receive is "a trick or a trap."

"What they would do is bring opposition MPs or leaders into a room, give them some information and then swear them to secrecy so they couldn't ever speak about it again so effectively that would be a trick to try to prevent anyone debating the subject," he said.

"So no, we're not going to have a situation where Conservatives are told that they have to be quiet about this scandal because they're sworn to secrecy. What we need is a public inquiry that is truly independent to get to the bottom of it all while continuing the parliamentary investigation."

Singh said he hated to agree with Poilievre, whom he refused to call by name, but that he too believes a secret briefing is not going to shed enough sunlight on the matter.

"I don't think this should be in any way private," he said.

Singh has floated the notion that he could make an inquiry a new requirement for continued NDP support of the Liberal minority government under the confidence-and-supply deal between the two parties.

On Monday, Singh would not commit to that, saying a decision has not yet been made.

The agreement would see the NDP support the Liberals on key votes in the House of Commons until as late as 2025, in exchange for the Liberals advancing on key NDP priorities.

The continued push for an independent investigation comes as the RCMP said Monday it is now investigating possible violations of the Security of Information Act concerning recent media reports about alleged foreign interference in the last two federal elections.

Deputy minister of public safety Shawn Tupper said last week that the RCMP was not investigating the alleged interference itself, but a statement from the national police force Monday said it is looking into the leaks to the media about it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2023.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press