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Exclusive: Beijing allegedly tried to run candidate against popular Canadian mayor

Brad West says he is stepping forward with allegations after CSIS and community sources alerted him on Chinese Communist Party threats

By Sam Cooper

August 23, 2023

In September 2019 Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West protested Beijing’s detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor at a Chinese Consulate event. Photo from Twitter

Mayor Brad West, arguably Beijing’s sharpest critic in Canadian politics, says he was provided evidence the Chinese Communist Party plotted to run a candidate against him in British Columbia’s 2022 municipal elections, and CSIS warned him that diplomats in China’s Vancouver Consulate were concerned West’s political trajectory could “represent a real threat to their aims and objectives.”

In an exclusive interview, the two-term Port Coquitlam mayor disclosed toThe Bureau that CSIS is aware of posts on WeChat suggesting Beijing tried to unseat him in last year’s election.

While West doesn’t know how CSIS has assessed the case, he thinks Canadians need to know the details, in part to hold Ottawa’s feet to the fire as attention wanders from Beijing’s federal election interference, and the Trudeau Government remains inactive on Chinese threats.

West said weeks after he was acclaimed mayor in October 2022, several Chinese community sources delivered records showing that pro-Beijing figures tied to Chinese diplomats in Vancouver used WeChat in August and September 2022 — albeit unsuccessfully — trying to recruit a candidate “the Chinese community could get behind” to defeat West.

An analysis of West’s claims finds much of his information fits into an emerging picture pieced together in The Bureau’s ongoing inquiry into Chinese interference networks.

The Bureau’s examination — gleaned from CSIS documents, source interviews and Chinese-language records — points to the co-conspirators, organization, technology and disinformation employed by Beijing’s sprawling intelligence networks to undermine elections across Canada, predominantly by clandestinely supporting candidates favoured by the Communist regime while attacking its political critics.

Specifically, The Bureau has learned CSIS intelligence alleges China’s top diplomats in Vancouver and Toronto have funded and directed Chinese community associations that are co-opted by Beijing’s United Front interference arm, to transfer financial, media and volunteer support to favoured candidates, because China wants to promote so-called “friends” up through the ranks of Canadian politics, in order to fulfill its objectives.

Beijing has repeatedly denied the allegations while RCMP national security units continue to investigate suspected actors in Chinese interference conspiracies.

One example of CSIS intelligence reviewed by The Bureau that generally supports West’s information about the networks targeting him, says “the PRC Consul General in Vancouver … boasted that she controlled over 100 community groups.”

CSIS acknowledged but did not answer questions by deadline for this story.

[Editor’s note: In a response received after this story was published, CSIS did not confirm or deny West’s allegations.]

In an interview that lasted over 60 minutes, West explained that during ten years as a Port Coquitlam councillor he developed relations with diaspora community sources and steadily gathered “small snippets” of information revealing Beijing’s interference in municipal politics.

“But it wasn't until I became mayor in 2018,” West said, “that I really got a full view of the extent of foreign interference in local government and all levels of government.”

West says he decided to use his office to speak against Beijing’s hostile activities, including its genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, crack-down on democracy in Hong Kong, “brazen” interference in Canadian politics and involvement in North America’s fentanyl overdose crisis, partly because most Canadian politicians avoid the issues, while many diaspora citizens are silenced in the face of threats from the Chinese Communist Party.

Gradually West learned the local pro-Beijing community was becoming concerned, he says. And his activism caught the full attention of China’s foreign interference arm in September 2019.

West had gathered with community members and a media throng outside a Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) conference in Vancouver, where Chinese officials had sponsored a private meeting with Canadian officials.

“I spoke about the oppression of people in China by the Chinese Communist Party, and I spoke about the need for our elected officials in this country to serve the citizens of this country and nobody else,” West recalled, “and that the growing threat of foreign interference particularly by the Chinese Communist Party would shake the foundations of our democracy and this was something that had to be addressed.”

Previously West had advocated for cancellation of the annual UBCM and Chinese Consular meeting, “where they get together behind closed doors for free drinks, free food and an opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party's officials to build these relationships with local politicians,” he said.

But on this occasion, nine months into Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor’s detentions in China, he decided to up the ante and confront meeting attendees, symbolically delivering two boxes of Tim Hortons donuts, with The Michaels pictures affixed.

According to West as he approached the private meeting room he came face-to-face with a senior Chinese Consular diplomat. And the events that followed apparently led to Beijing’s efforts to replace him with a favoured candidate in October 2022.

The Bureau’s in-depth interview, edited for length, probes West’s version of the events and more broadly, what he understands about sophisticated intelligence operations targeting Canada’s “soft underbelly of local government and municipal politics, where the Chinese Communist Party tries to insert themself.”

Sam Cooper

So what happened with your protest at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities conference?

Brad West

Because I was a mayor I was able to get into that reception. It took them about five seconds to realize who I was, and what I was doing there. They quickly ushered [the senior Chinese diplomat] away into the room where a whole bunch of other politicians, both municipal, provincial and federal, were gathered with the officials from the Chinese government. And with nowhere else to put the two boxes of donuts, I laid them on the ground in the doorway of the reception room. Later on, I reflected on the symbolism of our politicians having to step over pictures of The Michaels to get into a room with the Chinese Communist Party. This whole incident very much put me on the radar for the Chinese Communist Party. And I learned in the months and years that followed that incident, with the amount of media attention it generated, as it became national news and because it shamed UBCM into ending this decades-long practice of accepting financial contributions from the Chinese government and allowing them to host a reception, the Chinese Communist Party officials were infuriated. They felt that they had been embarrassed. And apparently, there was a number of meetings amongst local officials and people who are involved in the United Front, in Metro Vancouver. And it was the subject of a lot of consternation and discussion. And obviously, I became very much on the radar after that event. And so I was advised by CSIS during one of my meetings with them, that [China’s government] would be very concerned that I might one day move beyond being mayor of Port Coquitlam into a higher office. And that could represent a real threat to their aims and objectives. And so, over the last couple years, I've had people in the Chinese community who I've built relationships and friendships with. And they will pass along screenshots to me of WeChat messages and posts from people, who they say are associated with the United Front, which would try to portray me as anti-Chinese and racist. And as someone who is promoting the agenda of the United States of America. They've told me that this is often something that is used in Canada. [The Chinese Communist Party] try and create this juxtaposition of individuals who they see as being hostile to the government of China, are somehow devotees of Donald Trump or the United States of America. And of course, in my case, nothing could be further from the truth. My motivation is entirely based on what I believe is best for the community. So we had a municipal election in 2022, just last October. I was acclaimed as Mayor of Port Coquitlam for a second term. About a month after the elections had passed some of my contacts within the Chinese community, who have previously shared with me some of the articles and messages and posts that tried to depict me as anti-China, shared with me messages from the same individuals, who they tell me are associated with the United Front. And those messages were seeking someone to run against me for mayor. They were from August and September 2022. And they made comments along the lines of me being again, a lapdog to Donald Trump and the United States, and being anti-China. And it included a number of links from media stories, including a number of your stories Sam, where I was quoted saying various things about the importance of Canada standing up, my repeated advocacy for a foreign agent's registry. And one of the messages was seeking a candidate to run against me that quote: ‘the Chinese community could get behind and support.’ So I think when you put together all the puzzle pieces, and you look at the continual interest that [Chinese diplomats in Vancouver] have taken in me, and my being told by CSIS that I was on their radar, and the messages that were disseminated over the number of years, and finally the attempt to recruit someone who they could quote, ‘get behind to run against me’ as mayor. You know, that looks to me, like another example of foreign interference that we're seeing. One of numerous examples that have come to light. And most of those examples obviously have been at a federal and provincial level. But I have always known and have spoken out and have warned people about the soft underbelly of local government and municipal politics, where the Chinese Communist Party tries to insert themself. They're trying to build relationships with municipal politicians, in the hopes that those individuals go on to become Members of Legislative Assemblies, or Members of Parliament, or cabinet ministers or premiers or prime ministers. And then, they will have a relationship. And again, their operation is very sophisticated. I mean, that's why they sponsored the UBCM. That's why they had that reception. That's why they would take municipal politicians, including mayors and councillors from very small towns in British Columbia, and take them on trips to China. They did all of those things, not out of the goodness of their heart. But because they have an agenda, and that was them working to implement it. And so in the context of that, when I found out [that Beijing’s agents allegedly tried to defeat West in 2022] I wasn't horribly surprised. I almost half expected it. Because I knew how active they are and their attempts to target other politicians. But I do think the public needs to have awareness. Because we have a long way to go in our country before we have adequately dealt with this issue and have the very common sense safeguards in place that exist in a number of other countries. And I think those things are essential if we're going to ensure that our democracy, our government and our institutions are serving Canadians and nobody else.


I would agree with the whole timeline and set of facts and allegations you've laid out, because they are entirely consistent with the intelligence that I've reviewed and reported on. So that is, from since about 2015, the Chinese Consulates, especially in Vancouver and Toronto, have ramped up extremely aggressive interference, against all institutions in Canada, including media. But to get into my questions for you, the other elements that are common are WeChat, and it sounds like community leaders in Vancouver, that others in the community strongly suspect or know are part of the United Front, and who are very conversant with the Vancouver Consulate officials. But I'll start by asking, you mentioned yourself being briefed by CSIS. Am I correct? And you were told that they had intelligence, that Chinese officials were concerned with your political activity and didn't want you to rise further, or were afraid of you rising further in British Columbia, or other levels of politics?


That's correct. It would've been after the UBCM conference in September 2019. It was in January 2020, when they asked to have a meeting with me. Among the number of things that were shared with me, the one that was most significant was that the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Consulate was greatly distressed by my protest at the UBCM convention. And that it had very much put me on the radar and that the the ensuing media and public attention that event created on me, and the platform it provided me to be able to speak out on these issues, gave a great concern that I might advance to a higher level of office.


Right. And so what you've described, is prior to the municipal elections in the fall of 2022, from community sources that you trust, but you are choosing not to name, you are saying you were presented compelling evidence that there was an active operation against your election, or at least an attempt?


That's right. And the people who've come forward and shared this with me are people who are not prone to making things up, who have evidence and copies of messages, and who know their own community. But who also are at great risk both themselves and their families. If they were to identify themselves, they're already taking a great risk by sharing what they know. And what they shared with me leaves little doubt in my mind that if not a full scale operation, there was definitely an ongoing attempt by Chinese Communist Party officials to first mischaracterize my positions by trying to suggest that they were anti-Chinese people. When in fact, my position is to very much be in support of the Chinese people and the people who are brutally oppressed by the Chinese Communist Party. This is about the government, not the people. But yes, first this was an attempt to mischaracterize my positions and concerns around the actions of the Chinese Communist Party to try and make it seem that was a position that was hostile to the Chinese people. And then second, to find a candidate who would be sympathetic to their aims and objectives. And when I say they, I mean the Chinese Communist Party aims and objectives to run against me in the municipal election in the fall of 2022.



And so, you speak of evidence and you speak of WeChat. As you know, I've reported on CSIS intelligence that says WeChat was used broadly in the 2021 federal election to attack people from a political party, the Conservative Party of Canada. And specifically, Erin O'Toole and Kenny Chiu. And from what I found on WeChat, messages included that they would be lap dogs of the United States government. They would be enemies of China. That introducing a foreign interference registry by Mr. Chiu specifically was a racist action. And that Mr. O'Toole and the Conservatives were Donald Trump-like politicians. So when I tell you about that documentation I've reviewed, that sounds consistent with the WeChat evidence you're referring to, against yourself.

[Editor’s note: In Canada, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole was associated with centre-right politics. While in British Columbia, West is most often associated with centre-left politics and the New Democratic Party.]


You could almost swap out the names and it would be the same thing. It sounds like they obviously have a playbook that they use and it's that sort of characterization. Anything that is hostile to their aims or objectives needs to be portrayed as having a racist element and it needs to be portrayed as being in support of the United States of Donald Trump. The sources in the Chinese community that I've spoken to, who brought this to my attention, certainly validate that is a common framing that the Chinese Communist Party and its allies use in an attempt to mischaracterize the positions of others and to suggest that you know, the people who hold those positions, are going to do things that are harmful to the Chinese people.


Is CSIS, to your knowledge, investigating these allegations or a case that could involve efforts to promote a candidate to go against you and quote, ‘have the Chinese community behind them?’


I'm not aware of whether they're investigating it or not. But I believe that they're aware of it.


Can you tell me more about how you know that?


I know that the individuals in the Chinese Canadian community who provided me with the copies and documentation of these messages, of which there were several and occurred over an extended period of time, have also passed that documentation onto those authorities.


Okay. I want to mention that I interviewed you some years prior. It was around the time of The Michaels, the nationwide controversy you speak of, and even prior to that, we had spoken about what you suspected of China's influence at all levels of British Columbia politics. And I recall that we discussed a British Columbia-based politician, who I won't name at this point. But I think you gathered that this politician was making some sort of veiled threats and referring to the fact that you needed to be concerned about Chinese Canadian voters turning against you. I haven't reported that yet, but it seems to fit the chronology, or this buildup of actions that you're speaking of?


That is correct. Yes.


And so, do you have any suspicion that this politician or any British Columbia politicians could be associated with these, what sound like United Front network groups that are focused on you?


I do believe that there is coordination that occurs with the United Front and people active in politics on a number of levels in British Columbia, both elected and non-elected.


Okay. So what I have broadly found, is that CSIS believes that all levels of government in Canada are vulnerable to these Chinese Communist Party influence or infiltration networks. This goes from First Nation band councils to municipal councils, down to School Boards, up to provincial, federal. I'll add that my investigations have found that Ontario and British Columbia are specifically susceptible. So what's your view on the municipal, provincial, and federal level in British Columbia? What are the vulnerabilities?


I think the vulnerabilities are significant, and I would describe it this way. When we had the beating sunlight and heat of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor’s hostage-taking by the Chinese Communist Party, I think it made those who were engaging in these types of arrangements, to go underground. It’s almost like the situation with The Michaels and then COVID-19, and the continued deterioration of the relationship between the government of China and the government of Canada, put everything on ice. And it seemed like people were a lot more circumspect, and not as brazen. Because I would describe the situation prior to that, as being incredibly brazen in terms of politicians openly voting about their [interests] with the Chinese government officials, and parroting the same lines of the Chinese Communist Party, and pushing forward on their objectives as it relates to increased economic reliance [on China.] Thinking nothing, of going on Chinese government sponsored trips to China. It was all right in front of our face. Despite even at that time, the warnings from CSIS and others about how inappropriate it was, the fact that the government of China has an agenda, and that those folks were playing right into their hands. I think that's maybe the best way of describing it, Sam, is they were on offence for a long time. And, now thanks to the work of you and others who have shone a light on what's been going on, and thanks to very brave members of the Chinese community who have spoken out, they're no longer on offence. But it's still there. I sense that there may be a thawing. I've noticed that a number of politicians at all levels have restarted the practice of attending events that are being hosted by United Front groups or affiliates. You know, they seem to be inching back, towards rekindling all the relationships. So that's how I see the current state of play. But there's no doubt that the national dialogue around the need for a public inquiry into foreign interference in the elections, has put them on defence. But the key thing to understand is we have a long ways to go.


We’ve covered a lot, so I will finish with a few questions. It seems as reporting [on Chinese interference] has cooled off in the summer months, you're seeing that people that would've been comfortable attending these community group meetings that are strongly suspected to be United Front networks, you're seeing these meetings occur again?


Absolutely. I'm seeing with my own two eyes and I'm hearing from others, that as we are into the summer, and maybe the attention and focus on this foreign interference in our federal elections is waning, and other issues are emerging, and the media and the public attention is shifting, you can see the reemergence of this type of relationship building, as they would call it.


Okay. And you were one of a few politicians to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, fairly recently. So in light of what we've discussed, can you share anything about your discussions with the Secretary of State and how do you think the United States is viewing what's happening in British Columbia and Ontario, and at the federal level in Canada?


It was an incredibly consequential meeting from my perspective. I had met with the Secretary alongside the mayor of Denver and the mayor of Tijuana, and we spent over an hour together, and we had an incredibly direct and candid conversation about the challenges of money laundering, drug trafficking, international organized crime and fentanyl and opioids. And what impressed me about the Secretary was how direct he was in naming the role of the government of China and what we're seeing playing out on our streets and in our community. He said that he had been tasked by the president to build an international response to what is occurring. And in doing that, he felt it was important to speak to local mayors who are on the ground, who are seeing the carnage that this has all brought. He did not hold back in saying that the government of China not only shows no interest in clamping down on the precursors being developed in China, that are used for fentanyl and synthetic opioids, [but] in fact allowing it to happen creates a great deal of havoc in North America in the United States and in the West. And that certainly supports some of their objectives and their aims. He talked about the need for much stronger and uniform laws when it comes to being able to aggressively pursue those who are involved in, as you've described it so accurately Sam, the Vancouver Model. Which by the way, the Secretary was familiar with. And we had a very frank conversation about what that has looked like in our communities. He expressed his concern that there were a number of weak points on the Canadian side that allow for transnational criminal organizations to use Canada as a safe haven, both for distribution and also for the washing of money that is earned through drug trafficking. There was no attempt to sugarcoat it. And to be honest, I'm so used to hearing our Canadian politicians discuss this issue, and they just talk around it. You can't even get them to utter the word China as it relates to fentanyl. But Secretary Blinken was very direct about it, and the role that China is playing, and the need to have an international coordinated response to it. And I’m going to continue to be a strong advocate in this country for us to strengthen our response. Because right now it is very much a weak link in the chain. It's being used by these transnational criminal organizations. They're exploiting our weakness. And as a result of that, we're seeing thousands of our fellow citizens die. And we're seeing and continue to see, billions of dollars illegally laundered from that blood money for these gangs. So that's what I can share about it.


We've been on the record for an hour, but I need to ask this one follow question. If I understand your conversation with Secretary Blinken, he discussed whether the fentanyl coming into North America, it would be supportive —with the havoc occurring from this crisis — it would be supportive of Beijing's unfriendly objectives. Am I correct in that?


That was the discussion. You're correct.


Stunning. I'll end the tape there. That’s a confirmation.

[Editor’s note: Post-publication response from CSIS appended here in full.

There are important limits to what I can publicly discuss given the need to protect sensitive activities, techniques, methods, and sources of intelligence. These limitations are essential to ensure the safety, security, and prosperity of Canada.

CSIS takes any allegation of foreign interference very seriously and uses the full mandate of the CSIS Act in order to investigate, advise the Government of Canada, and address these threats. CSIS will continue to investigate threats of foreign interference and we are working closely with our domestic and foreign partners, as well as the communities most affected.

CSIS is committed to equipping elected officials to identify foreign interference threats and take measures to ensure their personal safety. We have provided personal security briefings and general threat briefings to elected officials across Canada and in 2022 alone, briefed 49 Federal Parliamentarians about the foreign interference threat. Additional statistics and information on our intelligence products can be found in our 2022 Public Report:]


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