So does the Liberal who beat him
By Joanna Chiu Staff Reporter
June 3, 2023
Longtime B.C. politician Dave Hayer knew his campaign people. And his people included Chinese Canadians. They volunteered for him. They voted for him. And then in his 2021 campaign to become a federal Conservative MP, they vanished.
The former MLA was running to represent the riding of Fleetwood-Port Kells, drawing on the same base of volunteers from past elections in the populous and culturally diverse Metro Vancouver city of Surrey.
By the end of the campaign, most volunteers of Chinese descent had dropped out, fearing for themselves and their families, Hayer said.
“They told me there was a lot of wrong and misleading information about the Conservatives on WeChat. They also said some Chinese Canadian individuals were spreading disinformation that voting for the Conservatives will mean people won’t get visas to go to China, or they’d have trouble doing business in China, or their family in China will have some problems.”
Hayer asked if they would go on the record and reveal what was happening, but the volunteers seemed nervous and some told him, “Beijing has eyes and ears everywhere.”
Today, the now-retired politician has been joined by Liberal Ken Hardie, who beat Hayer to become MP, to highlight what happened in their riding and use it to push for greater vigilance against foreign interference. It’s a rare instance of nonpartisanship at a time when opposition parties are castigating the Liberal government for inaction and urging the removal of David Johnston, Ottawa’s special rapporteur on foreign interference, and after former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole revealed he was targeted by Beijing.
“We’re friends. It’s a tight-knit community,” Hardie told the Star. “When I heard about what happened, I said I would look into it and try to figure out what happened.”
He could see “fear and suspicion”
In the summer of 2021, Hayer noticed what he called warning signs. While door-knocking in neighbourhoods where he said he was always welcomed, he could see the “fear and suspicion” on the faces of people of Chinese descent as they hurriedly shut their doors.
One week before election day, Hayer said a community organization that didn’t strike him as “openly pro-Beijing” invited him to meet with them at a Boston Pizza restaurant. While he spoke, they videotaped his comments, including when he said he would listen to the views of Uyghur Canadians about the human rights abuses against Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region. Hayer declined to give the name of the organization, saying all Canadians have the right to express their political views to political candidates.
Hardie won the election with 21,379 votes, with Hayer coming second with 14,553 votes. Hardie had been favoured as the incumbent.
“He won fairly and clearly … I’m not challenging that fact,” Hayer said. “It’s about how we can learn from past mistakes so that voters of this country are the ones who should be the ones freely making decisions about their leaders, not people from outside.”
Erin O’Toole warned by CSIS
Speaking to the House of Commons last week, O’Toole revealed details from a recent Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) briefing on a range of actions against him and the Conservatives while he was party leader during the last federal election.
They included Chinese Communist Party funding to create misinformation, the use of networks of people and the WeChat social media platform to amplify mistruths about the Conservatives and a “campaign of voter suppression” against him during the 2021 general election, he said.
O’Toole said the threats against him and members of his caucus were not flagged to him by the government or security agencies at the time.
Hayer and Hardie said that in 2021, they informed leaders of the Liberal and Conservative parties, as well as CSIS, about what they saw in Surrey. No one followed up, they said.
Hayer said he and other Conservative candidates in ridings in Metro Vancouver and the GTA met with O’Toole to share “very similar concerns” that Chinese Canadian voters were being targeted with disinformation and intimidation.
“In my view, they should’ve been better at monitoring and anticipating problems. The Conservative party wasn’t ready to provide correct information to voters to counter misinformation,” he said.
The Conservative party did not respond to the Star’s requests for comment.
After winning the race, Hardie called Hayer a few days later to talk, which is when Hayer brought up his concerns Beijing was targeting ethnic Chinese voters.
Hayer said of his former opponent: “We knew each other for a long time. I just thought that as the elected representative, I should pass on information to him. I didn’t expect him to look into it, especially as someone who won — he did go above and beyond.”
Hardie said his campaign manager compared votes and voter turnout in the Fleetwood-Port Kells neighbourhood of Fraser Heights, which has a population of about 25,000.
“We knew empirically that the Fraser Heights area is where a lot of the Chinese diaspora lives and we had data from the 2015, 2019 and 2021 elections.”
“Comparing results, we noticed a measurable difference in votes going to Liberals between the past election in 2019 versus 2021. The estimate in the increase was in the range of about 2,000 votes and the decline in the Conservative vote was probably measured in a few thousand as well.”
While Hardie’s office thought foreign influence could have made a measurable impact in some parts of the riding, it concluded it wasn’t enough to change the outcome. Hayer agreed, but both men share concerns that people in their community are living in fear.
“There are still signals that the community is too scared to speak up. We recently heard of a scam targeting the Chinese community. But they didn’t go to the police. They just suffer in silence,” Hardie told the Star.
A review by the Star of the official results corroborates Hardie’s analysis, but the figures alone don’t reveal why there was a shift in turnout, since this could depend on numerous factors, such as changing attitudes toward parties, politicians or policies.
A CSIS spokesperson told the Star it has been “committed to equipping elected officials to identify foreign interference threats and take measures to ensure their personal safety,” but declined to provide details of investigations into specific ridings.
Hardie said in 2021, he also reached out to the Liberal party with his concerns and his comments were “taken as input.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Liberals declined to comment on Hardie’s report, and said it welcomed Ottawa’s ongoing action to defend the Canadian electoral process from foreign interference.
Is their evidence?
On Wednesday, the majority of members of the House of Commons voted in favour of a non-binding NDP motion calling on Johnston to vacate the role of special rapporteur — an appointment Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made in March to probe media reports that Beijing had meddled in the 2019 and 2021 general elections.
Johnston said in a May 23 interim report that he found little evidence supporting O’Toole’s claim that specific candidates lost in the 2021 election because of foreign interference.
A spokesperson for Elections Canada pointed to limitations in the Canada Elections Act.
“The act does not define ‘foreign interference’ and there are limited provisions in the act that pertain to foreign activities,” the spokesperson said, but added that Elections Canada was working with intelligence and security agencies to respond to potential foreign interference.
The Commissioner of Canada Elections, which is responsible for investigating violations of the Canada Elections Act, confirmed to the Star it has only recently received complaints related to alleged foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections. Details of the complaints cannot be disclosed due to confidentiality provisions in the act.
Hayer said it is time for the government to step up to do more to safeguard Canada’s democracy from foreign threats.
“We can tell them what we’ve heard and seen on the ground, but the people in Ottawa can make a difference. They can do that without labelling an entire community, and instead do more to make them feel safe.”