Critics say the prime minister has been slow to respond to spy agency leaks that allege Beijing meddled in federal elections.
By ZI-ANN LUM
March 6, 2023
Recent polling by the Angus Reid Institute suggests a majority of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s own Liberal supporters believe Beijing likely attempted to meddle in Canada’s recent elections. | Fernando Llano/AP Photo
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has buckled to political pressures and is calling an investigation into allegations that Beijing interfered with Canadian elections.
“I will be appointing an independent special rapporteur, who will have a wide mandate and make expert recommendations on combating interference and strengthening our democracy,” the prime minister said Monday evening in Ottawa.
Trudeau stopped short of the public inquiry that opposition parties have demanded. Instead, he pitched a convoluted plan led by an “eminent, unimpeachable expert,” minus any deadlines. The prime minister said he has also consulted the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) — an all-party group of MPs and senators who have top secret security clearances — about allegations that Beijing meddled with the 2019 and 2021 campaigns.
China’s embassy in Canada has called the claims “pure slander and total nonsense” and accused media of spreading “all kinds of disinformation” without offering evidence why the stories are wrong.
Trudeau said the rapporteur will enlist NSICOP and others who can investigate and make recommendations that “could include a formal inquiry or some other independent review process.” He said options for next steps include a commission, an examination, a panel of judges or a judicial review.
He emphasized that federal party leaders agree the 2019 and 2021 election results “were not impacted by foreign interference.” He had tough words for actors using the issue to get an edge on the next campaign.
“Foreign interference is a complex landscape that should not be boiled down to sound bites and binary choices,” he said. “It should certainly not be about partisan politics.”
Trudeau also pledged C$5.5 million to combat disinformation, “because we know disinformation often generated abroad can be a real threat to our elections.”
The grab bag of measures buy Trudeau time to figure out how to repair the damaging perception that his minority government is a beneficiary of Beijing interference.
Trudeau’s sudden course change comes in response to pressure from opposition parties and a House committee since a bombshell story on Feb. 17 cited unverified intelligence reports about Beijing’s interference strategy — details that were shared with Five Eyes allies, including the United States.
Leaks from inside Canada’s spy agency reported by the Globe and Mail and Global News allege the Chinese government oversaw covert campaigns that backed 11 federal candidates, a majority of them Liberal.
The country’s national police agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, confirmed last week that they were not actively investigating the allegations. On Monday, the agency confirmed it has launched a probe to find the whistleblowers.
Unauthorized disclosures from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service allege Chinese diplomats in Toronto and Vancouver bragged about influencing voters to the extent that two incumbent Conservatives were driven out of office in 2021.
“The RCMP has initiated an investigation into violations of the Security of Information Act associated with recent media reports,” spokesperson Robin Percival said in a statement. “This investigation is not focused on any one security agency.”
The political stakes are high for Trudeau who risks appearing indecisive, feeding opposition charges the third-term prime minister is not fit to lead.
Recent polling by the Angus Reid Institute suggests a majority of Trudeau’s own Liberal supporters believe Beijing likely attempted to meddle in Canada’s recent elections. The same poll found that 42 percent of Conservative voters feel the 2021 election was “stolen.”
Trudeau asked Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino to guide the creation of a foreign influence registry in Canada, similar to the Australian government’s scheme. He acknowledged the endeavor is a double-edged sword that risks fueling xenophobia.
“We have to be mindful of history anytime we’re talking about registries of foreigners in our country,” he said.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre had pressed for a public inquiry, calling anything short of that unacceptable. The party has criticized the Liberals’ handling of Beijing, even after the government announced last year it would be taking a new hawkish approach with the Chinese Communist Party.
An all-party House committee has also been studying the allegations.
“This is not about Chinese Canadians who are first and foremost the victims of Beijing’s interference activities,” Conservative MP Michael Cooper told the Commons procedure and House affairs committee last week.
“This scandal is about what the prime minister knows about this interference, when he first learned about it, and what he did about it or failed to do about it.”