Trudeau names special rapporteur to look into foreign electoral interference

Mar 16, 2023 | Canadian News, International News, News

Former governor general David Johnston will be the special rapporteur investigating alleged foreign interference in Canadian federal elections, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday.

“I am confident that he will conduct an impartial review to ensure all necessary steps are being taken to keep our democracy safe and uphold and strengthen confidence in it,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau said his government will comply with Johnston’s recommendations following the investigation, which could include a formal inquiry or other independent review processes.

The move to name a special rapporteur is a response to allegations of Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, first reported by the Globe and Mail in late February.

The Globe and Mail said China deployed tactics, such as disinformation campaigns and cash donations to candidates viewed as friendly to China, based on a review of leaked documents prepared by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

The report also said China wanted a Liberal minority government and the defeat of vocal China critics such as Kenny Chiu, who lost reelection in his British Columbia riding in 2021.

These allegations have stirred up much debate in federal politics.

The Conservatives lined up with the New Democrats at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, passing a non-binding motion on March 2 to call for a public inquiry into the matter.

Trudeau has resisted calls to launch a public inquiry directly, saying an independent expert can better reassure Canadians of election integrity.

“Because this is not about what one political party says or another,” he said.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a commentator on Canada-China relations from the University of Ottawa, said the Trudeau government should launch a public inquiry as soon as possible.

“We cannot go into the next election with big questions hanging over Canada about whether certain ridings were won by the wrong person [people],” McCuaig-Johnston said.

She also said the inquiry should have a short term of under one year, and be led by an independent judge, who will have security clearance and access to sensitive documents.

McCuaig-Johnston also said although the leakers can be other senior government officials who also have access to sensitive documents, she felt Canadian authorities have overlooked advice from the intelligence agency for too long.

“If CSIS was able to determine that irregularities were happening, the riding president and others should have been aware of that as well and should have prevented it [them] from happening to begin with,” she said.

But some members of Chinese Canadian communities have sounded alarm bells about blanket calls for a public inquiry.

Cherie Wong, a member of the advocacy group Alliance Canada Hong Kong, expressed concerns on Twitter about the privacy and security of dissidents, who she said have deep knowledge about Chinese interference but are afraid of speaking out.

Her advocacy group published a report in May of 2021 about a suspected Chinese network of interference in Canada.

The report said one tactic used by China was the surveilling of Chinese communities in Canada, but such actions were often framed as civil disputes instead of coordinated attacks on opposing voices.

“The lack of awareness and response are major barriers in protecting the Charter-guaranteed rights and freedom of Canadians,” the report said.

Wong tweeted that response to China’s threats should not be performative political moves, but include systemic changes in Canadian institutions and sincere engagement with the dissident communities.