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Parliamentary committee expanding its study on foreign election interference

‘This really goes to the foundations of our democracy, and we need to get hearings underway’
People arrive to cast their ballot on federal election day in Montreal, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. A Parliamentary committee is set to decide whether or not it will expand its current study on foreign election interference to include more details about the 2021 federal election. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

National security agencies and Liberal cabinet ministers are being summoned by a House of Commons committee to testify about China’s alleged influence over the last federal election.

The move comes in response to a report last week from the Globe and Mail newspaper that said China worked in the 2021 election to defeat Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing and to help ensure a Liberal minority government.

The House of Commons procedure and House affairs committee unanimously agreed on Tuesday to invite Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc for another round of questioning.

The committee is also summoning Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, representatives from Elections Canada and national security agencies including the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Most of the witnesses the committee intends to hear from have already participated in its study of allegations of foreign interference in the 2019 election, which began in November.

“This really goes to the foundations of our democracy, and we need to get hearings underway as soon as possible to bring relevant ministers and to get answers,” Conservative MP Michael Cooper told The Canadian Press on Tuesday.

“Today is a starting point.”

Members of Parliament on the committee have agreed to extend the study indefinitely and schedule at least three more meetings later this month.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that Canadian voters alone decided the outcome of the last federal election.

Michael Pal, an associate law professor at the University of Ottawa, said that academic sources, journalists and Canada’s national security agencies have suggested “foreign interference happens in every federal election in Canada now,” although its effect remains unclear.

“It’s just very hard to measure how people would have otherwise acted absent the foreign interference. Would they have voted differently? Would they not have voted?” Pal said.

Under a federal protocol, there would be a public announcement if a panel of senior bureaucrats determined that an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.

There was no such announcement concerning the 2021 or 2019 elections. Both times, the Liberals remained in government with minority mandates, while the Conservatives formed the official Opposition.

“Presumably they either didn’t have the intelligence at the time, or they had it and it just … did not, in their estimation, rise to the level necessary to make such an announcement to the public,” Pal said.

During Tuesday’s committee, the Liberals called for a non-partisan approach moving forward.

Jennifer O’Connell, who serves as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of intergovernmental affairs, cautioned Conservative MPs about politicizing the issue, saying it could harm Canada’s democratic institutions.

“This is the same Trump-type tactics to question election results moving forward,” O’Connell said in response to Tories’ allegations that the government has kept the public in the dark about what election interference occurred.

It can be sensitive for the Canadian government to share specific details, Pal said, because officials don’t want to reveal too much to foreign governments, including the steps they’re taking to counter any interference.

He said the issue should be handled in a non-partisan way, because it would be a “big deal” if the public starts doubting the integrity of the electoral process.

“Part of this has been feeding into this idea that elections are rigged. We saw that in the U.S. We saw that in Brazil. It’s happening in a lot of countries around the world,” Pal said.

“This is part of this bigger, ongoing fight between democracies and dictatorships. So we need to make some common cause together within Canada, but also with other democracies.”

—Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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