Canada spies found China interfered in last two elections, probe hears

FILE PHOTO: A vehicle passes a sign outside the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) headquarters in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie/File Photo © Thomson Reuters

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada’s domestic spy agency concluded that China interfered in the last two elections, an official probe heard on Monday, the firmest evidence so far of suspected Chinese meddling in Canadian politics.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won both the elections, held in 2019 and 2021. Under pressure from opposition legislators unhappy about media reports on China’s possible role, Trudeau set up a commission into foreign interference.

The commission was shown a slide on Monday containing an extract of a February 2023 briefing from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

“We know that the PRC (Peoples’ Republic of China) clandestinely and deceptively interfered in both the 2019 and 2021 elections,” it said.

“In both cases, these FI (foreign interference) activities were pragmatic in nature and focused primarily on supporting those viewed to be either ‘pro-PRC’ or ‘neutral’ on issues of interest to the PRC government.”

The existence of the assessment had previously been reported by Global News. China denies it interferes in Canadian politics.

Erin O’Toole, who led the Conservatives during the 2021 campaign, estimated Chinese interference cost his party up to nine seats but added it had not changed the course of the election.

“State actors are able to conduct foreign interference successfully in Canada because there are few legal or political consequences. FI is therefore low-risk and high-reward,” said the CSIS assessment.

Intelligence analysts and the Conservatives say Trudeau’s government has not done enough to combat Chinese interference. Trudeau is due to testify to the commission on Wednesday.

The Conservatives, who generally take a harder line on China than the Liberals, campaigned in 2021 on a platform that condemned Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur minority and vowed to ban Chinese mobile giant Huawei from the 5G network.

A legislator for the left-leaning minority New Democrats told the inquiry that once she started criticizing Beijing’s Hong Kong policy, invitations to events held by the politically influential ethnic Chinese community started to dry up.

According to the official 2021 census, Canada is home to around 1.7 million people of Chinese descent, just under 5% of the total population.

The Chinese embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the CSIS statement.

Last year, Canada said a Conservative legislator with family in Hong Kong had been targeted in an online disinformation operation, and kicked out a senior Chinese diplomat.

Source: Reuters/Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bill Berkrot