Trudeau announces multiple investigations into foreign election interference

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 6, 2023. Trudeau is calling on the committee of parliamentarians that reviews matters of national security and the national intelligence watchdog to independently investigate concerns about foreign interference in Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

With his government under fire over claims that China meddled in the 2019 and 2021 votes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced multiple investigations into foreign election interference and the appointment of a special rapporteur.

Trudeau told a news conference Monday evening that, in the coming days, he will name an "eminent" and independent person as a special rapporteur on election interference "who will have a wide mandate and make expert recommendations on combating interference and strengthening our democracy."

Trudeau's announcement comes during a heated debate in Ottawa over how to handle the issue. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre have been pushing the idea of an open inquiry on foreign election interference.

WATCH: Trudeau announces special rapporteur to probe election interference

Trudeau said the rapporteur could recommend a formal inquiry.

"And we will abide by their recommendation," he said in prepared remarks.

Trudeau and the head of Canada's intelligence agency have acknowledged there were attempts by China to interfere in the past federal elections. They maintain the election's overall outcome was not altered.

The prime minister also said he's tasked the country's two intelligence review bodies — the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency — with investigating the issue.

"I talked to them about undertaking urgent work on the issue of foreign interference, within their mandates," he said.

MPs and senators on the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) receive Top Secret security clearances and are permanently bound to secrecy under the Security of Information Act, permitting them access to the agencies' usually secret activities.

Trudeau said NSICOP will launch a new review of foreign interference, with a focus on elections.

The committee was set up in 2017 to provide parliamentary oversight of Ottawa's intelligence operations. It completed a report on foreign interference back in 2019, which called on the government to "do better."

"Canada has been slow to react to the threat of foreign interference," NSICOP wrote at the time.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) is an independent and external review body that reviews all national security and intelligence activities to ensure that they are "lawful, reasonable and necessary."

Trudeau said NSIRA will look at how Canada's intelligence agencies work, "what information flowed or didn't flow properly and why."

Poilievre called Monday's announcement a "cover-up" taking place behind closed doors.

"A so-called 'special rapporteur' hand-picked by the prime minister is not the same as a true independent inquiry, with the full legal powers granted by the Inquiries Act, including compelling the testimony and the production of documents," he said in a media statement.

"Enough is enough. Justin Trudeau cannot continue to hide the truth from Canadians, and we won't let him bury the truth either. The Liberals must listen to the will of Parliament and establish an independent public inquiry."

Opposition calling for a public inquiry 

Earlier in the day Poilievre was asked if he would be open to receiving a high-level briefing from intelligence services as a compromise.

"No, that's a trick and that's a trap," he said.

"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. We need a public inquiry that is truly independent, to get to the bottom of it."

NDP House Leader Peter Julian told CBC's Power & Politics Monday's announcement was a baby step and the special rapporteur needs to be "impeccable."

"It cannot be somebody who is considered partisan and cannot be somebody who is not considered independent from the Liberal government," he said.

Earlier in the day, Singh said he needs to see an investigation that is as transparent as possible.

"We want the public to know that we're taking steps to assess exactly what happened, how broad this is, and then take steps to recommend how we can prevent this from happening in the future," said Singh.

"That should be the goal."

The push for a public inquiry comes in response to recent reports detailing allegations of Chinese interference in Canada's elections.

Justin Tang/Canadian Press
Justin Tang/Canadian Press

Back in the fall, Global News reported intelligence officials warned 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.

Last month, the Globe and Mail reported that China employed a "sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada's democracy" in the 2021 election campaign as Chinese diplomats and their proxies "backed the re-election of Justin Trudeau's Liberals."

A panel of public servants tasked with monitoring incidents did not detect foreign interference that threatened Canada's ability to hold free and fair elections in either the 2019 and 2021 elections. But the panel did say there were attempts to interfere in both campaigns, according to reports highlighting its work.

Foreign agent registry consultations coming 

Later this week, Trudeau added, the government will launch public consultations on creating what he called a "foreign influence transparency registry."

Trudeau said the government wants to keep those who advocate on behalf of foreign governments accountable while protecting communities that often are targeted by attempts at foreign interference.

The government has promised consultations for months. Poilievre said the government still has not provided any details or timelines on this.

The U.S. and Australia have foreign agent registries that require those acting on behalf of foreign states to register their activities.

CSIS Director David Vigneault has said that while such a registry wouldn't be the only tool needed, it would be a useful measure to improve transparency.

The government also promises to:

  • Develop a plan to implement any outstanding recommendations from NSICOP, NSIRA and the independent assessment of the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol within the next 30 days.

  • Invest $5.5 million to form an alliance of civil society partners to fact-check and counter disinformation.

RCMP investigating leaks to media

On Monday, the RCMP confirmed it's started an investigation into violations of the Security of Information Act related to leaks of government information about foreign election interference shared with media outlets.

The act is designed to safeguard and protect Canada's most secret information.

"This investigation is not focused on any one security agency," said RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival.

"As the RCMP is investigating these incidents, there will be no further comment on this matter at this time."

The RCMP says it wasn't able to launch a criminal investigation into allegations of foreign interference in the 2021 election because it did not receive actionable intelligence.