The latest instalment in the political soap opera known colloquially as Chinese election interference was released last Friday. To use a pop culture idiom from a previous century, it seems like the scandal has jumped the shark.

When I last delved into this almost a year ago  it appeared that a controversy some of the punditocracy were saying would bring down the Trudeau government was already losing steam. This observer ventured that although the media and the opposition were intent on making a mountain of it, the evidence of wrongdoing amounted to a molehill. 

With last week’s release of the Initial Report into Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions the molehill remained just a tiny mound, inhabited by intelligence service operatives – moles of a different sort. Justice Marie-Josée Hogue of the Quebec Court of Appeal, whose appointment had all-party agreement, added little to what was already known from the May, 2023 report on the subject by David Johnston, a “special rapporteur” appointed by Justin Trudeau.

It will be recalled that the findings of the former Governor-General’s two-month probe into leaked reports of interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections were dismissed by the opposition  and many in the media as a cover-up, the product of a conflict of interest stemming from old personal family ties between David Johnston and Trudeau. 

In an ill-advised move in this age of populism, Johnston insisted that because most of the information he had seen was secret there was nothing to be gained from a public hearing. We’d just have to trust him. When that elitist stand drew several weeks of attacks from all of the opposition parties, Johnston resigned. Eventually (it took them three months) the parties agreed on Justice Hogue, a Harper government appointee, as the one to conduct the public inquiry that once was so urgently needed. 

Then after eight months to examine the documents and take testimony in camera and in public, with various parties given the right to cross-examine witnesses, Commissioner Hogue came out with a report that reached basically the same conclusions as David Johnston did almost a year earlier. 

 Near the end of her report, Hogue provides a useful Q and A putting on the record her basic conclusions.

  • Was there foreign interference targeting the 2019 and 2021 general elections?
    Yes. I have no difficulty concluding that there was. 
  • Did foreign interference undermine the integrity of the electoral system itself?
    No. The administration of the elections was sound. 
  • Did foreign interference impact which party came into power in 2019 or 2021?
    No, it did not.
  • Did foreign interference impact any election results at a riding level?
    This is a more difficult question to answer. It is possible that results in a small number of ridings were affected, but this cannot be said with certainty. 
  • Did foreign interference nevertheless impact the broader electoral ecosystem?
    It did. Regardless of impact on specific election results, all foreign interference impacts the right of Canadians to have their electoral processes and democratic institutions free from covert influence, and their right to vote freely and in an informed manner. 
  • Did foreign interference undermine public confidence in Canadian Democracy?
    Regrettably, the answer is yes. This is perhaps the greatest harm Canada has suffered as a result of foreign interference. 

The Commissioner’s certainty on several points – i.e. that there was interference and it may have affected the outcome in some ridings – is somewhat undermined by her admission that her findings are based on intelligence reports, and intelligence from the likes of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) isn’t evidence. Thus, as she put it, the commission was “not in a position to test the information collected by the intelligence agencies or question the conclusion they may have reached.”  

Nevertheless, taking the intelligence reports at face value, and with the added benefit of public and in camera hearings, cross-examinations and testimony from Justin Trudeau himself, Hogue’s findings on some of the leaked headline-grabbing allegations that fuelled months of controversy in Ottawa are – drum roll – in line with Johnston’s earlier discredited conclusions.

Networks and Machines?

Take the November, 2022 story from Global News claiming that the Chinese government (henceforth PRC – the People’s Republic of China) gave $250,000 to a “network” of 11 Toronto-area candidates in the 2019 federal election, some of whom were “witting affiliates.” David Johnston found “from limited intelligence” that there was an intention to contribute to seven Liberal and four Conservative candidates but “there is no intelligence suggesting any federal candidates received these funds.”  As for the network “no network was known to exist.” 

Justice Hogue arrived at a similar conclusion, adding details about how some of the 2019 campaign allegations were handled by the panel of senior government officials (The Panel of Five) established by the Liberals in 2017 to monitor possible foreign interference in elections.  

“The Panel of Five was aware of allegations that there was some financial support for candidates in Toronto in 2019 but did not attribute the activities to a ‘network.’ Nathalie Drouin, then Deputy Minister of Justice, was surprised by references in the media reporting in 2022 or 2023 to the specific amount of $250,000 and to a “network” of 11 candidates. Those specifics did not come to the Panel’s attention until after the election… The Panel asked the national security agencies to monitor the situation and to continue to report to them.”

Another sensational allegation addressed by both Johnston and Hogue was a Globe and Mail report from February 2023. The Globe, whose reporters have received several awards for their over-wrought coverage of Chinese interference, claimed that the PRC had established “an orchestrated machine” with two primary aims – to ensure a minority Liberal government and defeat certain Conservative candidates. 

After reviewing intelligence and interviewing CSIS and government officials, David Johnston acknowledged “an unconfirmed indication that a very small number of PRC diplomats expressed a preference for the LPC to the CPC in the 2021 election. Other members of diplomatic staff have had a variety of opinions and preferences over different periods of time, and in different elections. But there was no indication that the PRC had a plan to orchestrate a Liberal minority.”

  Commissioner Houde’s take? 

In 2021, there was reporting that some individual PRC officials in Canada expressed a preference for a minority Liberal government because they viewed minority governments as being more limited in terms of being able to enact anti-China policies. They did not view any political party as being particularly pro-China.

Individual ridings

On the possibility that results in individual ridings may have been affected by interference, Justice Hogue’s finding that “it may be possible that results in a small number of ridings were affected, but this cannot be said with certainty” focused on two ridings – one in Vancouver and one in the Toronto area.  

Kenny Chiu, the incumbent Conservative candidate in Vancouver’s Steveston-Richmond East Riding, complained that during  his unsuccessful attempt to retain his seat in 2021 he was subjected to an online misinformation campaign orchestrated by the PRC. David Johnston found that “the misinformation could not be traced to a foreign source.” Justice Hogue also found “no definitive link” between false narratives and the PRC. Her report contained a lengthy and sympathetic discussion of online Mandarin-language misinformation aimed at Chiu and the whole Conservative campaign but could only conclude “that there is a reasonable possibility that the media narrative … could have impacted the result in Steveston–Richmond East.” 

The alleged interference in Don Valley North, occurring during a Liberal nomination contest in 2019, has a bit more heft to it. Global broke that story, reporting in 2023 that Han Dong, a former Liberal member of the Ontario legislature, secured the nomination with help from several busloads of Chinese students transported courtesy of the Chinese consulate. The story reported that CSIS made “senior Liberal party officials” aware of the situation during the 2019 election campaign. David Johnston’s investigation basically corroborated the Global story, but found nothing particularly alarming about it. 

“Irregularities were observed with Mr. Dong’s nomination in 2019, and there is well-grounded suspicion that the irregularities were tied to the PRC Consulate in Toronto, with whom Mr. Dong maintains relationships. In reviewing the intelligence, I did not find evidence that Mr. Dong was aware of the irregularities or the PRC Consulate’s potential involvement in his nomination. The Prime Minister was briefed about these irregularities, although no specific recommendation was provided. He concluded there was no basis to displace Mr. Dong as the candidate for Don Valley North. This was not an unreasonable conclusion based on the intelligence available to the Prime Minister at the time.”

Justice Hogue did not dispute Johnston’s finding other than to express concern about “the extent to which nomination contests can be gateways for foreign states who wish to interfere in our democratic processes.” She promised that party nominations and their “potential vulnerability” to foreign interference will be examined in the second phase of the commission’s work.

Nothing on leakers, partisans and the media 

As noted in previous posts on his topic, David Johnston expressed criticism of leakers and excessive partisanship and was clearly unimpressed with some of the media coverage. On the leakers he wrote:

“Suffice it to say, leaking secret intelligence is unlawful and a breach of duty by the leaker. It cannot be justified by any frustration the leaker may have with the government’s response. It also risks great harm to Canada’s ability to gather intelligence (and the safety of intelligence sources) and to work cooperatively with allies in doing so. Sources dry up, and some may be in physical danger.” 

On opposition politicians who refused to to be sworn to secrecy  to examine the intelligence basis for his findings, Johnston wrote:

“… this matter is too important for anyone aspiring to lead the country to intentionally maintain a veil of ignorance on these matters. While political parties may disagree about policy and priorities, they should do so from a common understanding of the true facts, not as speculated or hypothesized from media reports based on leaks of partial information. 

He went easier on the media, suggesting the worst sin was failing to put information in context. 

“When viewed in full context with all of the relevant intelligence, several leaked materials that raised legitimate questions turn out to have been misconstrued in some media reports, presumably because of the lack of this context.… when the intelligence is reviewed and considered in the context of all relevant intelligence, the specific instances raised are less concerning than some media reporting has suggested, and in some cases tell a different story from what has been reported to date.” 

Johnston was not alone in this. A former CSIS official, Dan Stanton was critical of the whistle blower, the media’s “leaker idolatry” and their embellishment of the leaked intelligence to attach “nobility to it.” Artur Wilczynski, a former director-general in the Communications Security Establishment, was also critical of the illegal leaking of classified documents. “You cannot say you are working to protect democracy while  breaking laws that have been passed by Parliament, ” he told a parliamentary committee.

What’s next?

Unfortunately, none of these issues were included in Justice Hogue’s mandate. So leaks, political games and media sensationalism will not be dealt with in the second phase of her inquiry. That phase, to culminate in a report by the end of the year, will be focussing on dry process issues such as “how intelligence and information about foreign interference should be communicated to government, the public and those likely vulnerable to foreign interference and whether it is advisable for our intelligence agencies to share more information.” 

The Commission will also examine the rules, or lack of rules, governing nomination contests. Given the example of Han Dong and the Don Valley North nomination, this may be enough to encourage opposition parties and media to keep at it. In discussing the Han Dong nomination, the one that took place five years ago, the Commissioner offered a tidbit that, thanks to Justin Trudeau, could  breath new life into the scandal. 

In his in camera testimony before me, Mr. Trudeau noted that un-endorsing Mr. Dong would have direct electoral consequences as the LPC expected to win DVN. It would also have a devastating impact on Mr. Dong personally. Mr. Trudeau noted that he has had to eject candidates and MPs from the Liberal Party in the past, for a variety of reasons, but he did not feel there was sufficient or sufficiently credible information to justify removing Mr. Dong.”

Perhaps this moment of candour from Trudeau will do for the foreign interference saga what the episode in which the Fonz jumped over a shark didn’t do for Happy Days. Here’s hoping it doesn’t. That TV series from the ‘70s and ‘80s ran out of gas, the attempt to revive it by having the Fonz do something completely out of character by water skiing over a shark, failed to restore its momentum. 

That’s what should happen with the foreign interference issue – get rid of the partisanship and the sensationalism and work to improve newly-developed safeguards against foreign meddling in elections and democratic activities. Maybe they weren’t moving fast enough, but they were already in the works when leakers with agendas connected with like-minded reporters and put on a show to the delight of a Conservative opposition for whom partisanship is everything.