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As inquiry decision looms, here’s how Canada’s foreign interference saga has evolved

Trudeau has said he will abide by Johnston’s recommendations, including if he recommends a public inquiry
David Johnston looks on during a farewell reception in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Special rapporteur David Johnston is expected to release his decision Tuesday on whether the federal Liberals should hold a public inquiry on foreign interference. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Special rapporteur David Johnston is expected to release his decision Tuesday on whether the federal Liberals should call a public inquiry on foreign interference.

With allegations that China meddled in the last two federal elections dominating the political conversation for months, experts say an inquiry would allow for a detailed, transparent conversation about what kind of threat Canada is actually facing.

It would also allow the Liberal government to demonstrate that it is doing more to address the issue, they say.

Johnston’s recommendation on the inquiry is set to come as part of an initial report about how the government should proceed with the allegations of interference. The former governor general is scheduled to give a news conference at noon on Tuesday upon releasing the report publicly.

In what many saw at the time as too little, too late, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped Johnston in March to lead an investigation into the extent and impact of foreign interference in Canada.

The federal government said it gave Johnston access to classified documents and Canada’s security agencies to conduct that work.

Though opposition parties had by then been clamouring for a formal public inquiry for weeks, Trudeau said Johnston would have until late May to decide whether it was warranted. He would have until the end of October to produce a final report.

The pressure has not abated since then.

“The way that the conversation has evolved over the past few months has really aggravated and made more stark partisan divides in the country,” said University of Ottawa professor Artur Wilczynski.

“That, in my opinion, has not contributed to an effective defence of Canadian democracy and has not contributed to an effective governmental response to the threats of foreign interference.”

Wilczynski, who spent more than 30 years in the public service working on foreign policy, intelligence, security and defence issues, said an inquiry would help bring the conversation back around to the details of the foreign interference threat itself and how Canada should position itself to combat that threat.

The signs that foreign interference was happening — and getting worse — were already in plain sight well before the current controversy began.

Officials in Canada knew the 2016 American election was subject to foreign interference attempts.

And for years, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has been warning of growing concern in its annual reports.

But a series of reports by the Globe and Mail and Global News beginning last fall, many of which cited unnamed security sources, brought new attention to the issue. The reports alleged that specific influence attempts had taken place in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

“Despite various attempts by officials to talk about foreign interference, the only thing that prompted a real fundamental conversation about foreign interference were the illegal leaks,” Wilczynski said.

When a Global News report was published in November that alleged China was funding campaigns through an illegal network of donors, Trudeau and his officials said they had no knowledge of specific candidates receiving backing by Beijing.

But the government began showing signs that it was reframing its approach to China.

A week after the allegations emerged, Trudeau’s office said the prime minister raised concerns about “interference” with Chinese President Xi Jinping face-to-face at the G20 summit.

Later the same month, Canada released an Indo-Pacific strategy that dedicated a slice of its $2.3 billion value to combating foreign interference.

And before November ended, then-RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki confirmed an ongoing investigation into broad foreign interference allegations.

Still, the calls for further scrutiny were amplified as more reports emerged, including a February story from the Globe and Mail that asserted the Chinese government sought to defeat Conservative politicians in the 2021 election who were considered unfriendly to the regime.

By the time Trudeau announced in early March that a special rapporteur would be named — and that investigations by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency would begin — the writing was on the wall.

His political opponents already saw any action other than an independent public inquiry as far too little. A parliamentary committee passed a non-binding motion calling on the government to begin one.

“It’s created a huge political drama for the Liberal government and put it on the defensive, certainly,” said Wesley Wark, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

“The Liberal government has struggled to come up with a convincing portrait of the actions and policies it has taken to respond forcefully to foreign interference. It clearly has done some things, but it hasn’t been enough.”

Since Trudeau named Johnston as the special rapporteur in mid-March, the government promised funding to combat foreign interference in its 2023 budget, launched consultations on a foreign agent registry and ordered security agencies to improve their reporting mechanism up to the political level.

But even as the Liberals sought to show they were working on the issue, still more reports emerged that ramped up the pressure.

Days after Johnston’s appointment — which itself was controversial, since Conservatives accused him of being too close to Trudeau — MP Han Dong announced he was leaving the Liberal caucus.

Global News had published a story citing unidentified security sources who alleged Dong told a Chinese diplomat in February 2021 that releasing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor would benefit the Conservatives.

The two Canadian men had been detained in China since December 2018, just over a week after the RCMP arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Global had previously published allegations that Dong benefited from Chinese foreign interference in his successful bid to become the Liberal candidate for his riding in 2019.

Dong has denied the allegations and is suing Global over its reporting.

Early this month, the Globe and Mail reported that Conservative MP Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong had been targeted by the Chinese government via a Toronto-based diplomat.

Chong said he confirmed that allegation was contained in a CSIS intelligence assessment that had reached officials in the Privy Council Office, while Trudeau denied that the information about the alleged threat had ever reached his office.

Canada expelled the accused Chinese official. China responded by expelling a Canadian diplomat. And this week, the public safety minister ordered security agencies to ensure that any future threats against parliamentarians, their families or their staff are communicated at the political level.

For Wilczynski, this latest chapter in the story has brought home the tangible implications of foreign meddling.

It was one thing for people to imagine that an electoral candidate might have received financial support from people linked to a foreign regime. It was another to think about allegations that a parliamentarian’s family members were being actively threatened.

This “crystallized for Canadians in a very robust way what the scope of the threat is,” he said.

It’s against that backdrop that Johnston is now expected to recommend the government’s best course of action.

Formal hearings would give elections officials, political parties, parliamentarians, provinces, communities and other actors a voice, Wilczynski said — “and in a thoughtful way talk about what the threat is, and what their experiences are.”

Trudeau has said he will abide by Johnston’s recommendations, including if he recommends a public inquiry.

It’s a big burden to bear, Wark noted.

“Johnston’s been thrust out in front of this problem. And he will take the heat.”

David Fraser, The Canadian Press

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