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Addressing “China’s Election Meddling” in Canada

Important Background

CSIS documents revealed to the Globe and Mail that China employed a strategy to influence Canada's 2021 federal election. More specifically, the GlobeandMail reports that: 

"China employed a sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada's democracy in the 2021 federal election campaign as Chinese diplomats. Their proxies backed the re-election of Justin Trudeau's Liberals – but only to another minority government – and worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing." 

This statement indicates that China had tried or "wanted" to influence Canada's 2021 election. According to the story, China wanted to ensure a minority Liberal administration and the defeat of particular Conservative candidates in Canada. Certain consul-general and other Chinese diplomats "boasted" in 2021 about how they defeated some Conservative MPs. 

As for motive, the documents state that China "likes it when the parties in Parliament are fighting with each other, whereas if there is a majority, the party in power can easily implement policies that do not favour the People’s Republic of China (PRC)", the article writes. And although Chinese diplomats had recognized that the Liberals were increasingly becoming critical of China, the Chinese diplomat preferred the Liberals over the alternative. 

Furthermore, the CSIS reports showcase that China employed:

"disinformation campaigns and proxies connected to Chinese-Canadian organizations in Vancouver and the GTA, which have large mainland Chinese immigrant communities, to voice opposition to the Conservatives and favour the Trudeau Liberals." 

The reports show that the "Conservative Party was too critical of China and that, if elected, it would follow the lead of former U.S. President Donald Trump. It could ban Chinese students from certain universities or education programmes," according to advice and instructions were given to Chinese diplomats, their proxies, and the Chinese-language media from the homeland. 

The Chinese consulate official said, "The Liberal Party of Canada is becoming the only party the PRC can support." 

The documents cite the extent of Chinese operations influencing the election including

(1) Campaign contributions to political campaigns.

(2) Assigning Chinese students to volunteer for political campaigns.

(3) Controlling recent Chinese immigrants were seen as "easy to influence" by the CCP.

In the province of British Columbia, CSIS reports that the Vancouver consul-general, Ms. Tong, "wanted the Liberal Party to win the 2021 election"; this report comes a month after the 2021 federal election. Former consul, Wang Jin, made "discreet and subtle efforts" to encourage Chinese-Canadian organizations to vote for the Liberals and defeat the Conservatives. 

The CSIS documents cite Kenny Chiu as one Conservative candidate defeated by the Liberals. Ms. Tong believes that "their [Chinese] strategy and tactics were good and contributed to achieving their goals while still adhering to the local political customs cleverly." CSIS reports that another Chinese consular said the loss of such Conservative MPs "substantiated the growing electoral influence of mainland Chinese Canadians." 

At the same time, Canada's electoral interference watchdog, the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force, did not issue any public warnings about foreign interference in the 2019 or 2021 elections. In addition, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau said the Task Force "determined that the integrity of our elections was not compromised in 2019 or 2021."

In 2019, the Prime Minster briefed that the Chinese consulate in Toronto targeted 9 Liberal and 2 Conservative candidates as favourable to China. However, CSIS Director David Vigneault told the Prime Minster that "there was no indication that China's interference efforts had helped elect any of them, despite the consulate's attempts to promote the campaigns on social media and in Chinese-language media outlets." 

Why Both CSIS and the Federal Government are at Fault

Why did CSIS (or leakers within CSIS) go public for revealing this information? Why not collaborate with the federal government and make a CSIS+government-oriented announcement about electoral interference? Indeed this would've been less politically divisive and more healthy among our government agencies (reiterates the idea that our agencies and government departments don't work together effectively)

We can extrapolate from these leaked documents that certain CSIS members felt the need to inform sensitive information to the public. Rather than trying to collaborate with the federal government to make a joint statement on electoral interference, CSIS leaked the information instead as they felt "not heard", according to Parliamentary reporter Steven Chase. 

Unfortunately, leaks at this scale showcase once again that Canadian government departments and agencies need to be more cohesive in cooperation. As was with Freedom Convoy protests, a lack of cooperation and transparency between government agencies are severely lacking. 

At the same time, why did these leakers need to go public with such sensitive information? Why not bring this information to CSIS leadership before going public? On the chance that these leakers revealed this information to CSIS leadership and no further action was conducted, we can conclude that CSIS leadership was also not listening to their bottom-line members. 

On the other hand, if the leakers were indeed senior members of CSIS, then the fault lies with CSIS and the federal cabinet. CSIS is at fault for leaking such sensitive information to the public, and the federal cabinet is at fault for forcing senior members to go public with the information. 

No Evidence of Actual Interference

Although the leaked documents are damning of attempted Chinese influence in Canadian elections, there still remains no evidence that China's interference impacted the polls. The only evidence these documents provide is entirely circumstantial, and they are statements made by Chinese diplomats and consul members claiming they had an impact. Whether those claims are valid is yet to be proven by Chinese or Canadian officials. Thus, once CSIS provides quantitative evidence of electoral interference, these leaked documents ought to not be used as evidence of Chinese interference. Furthermore, if Canada's election watchdog for electoral interference (SITE) did not issue any warnings for the 2019 or 2021 elections, then we have more evidence to suggest electoral interference did not happen. 

Choice of Words 

The Parliamentary Reporter, Steven Chase, broke the story with the Globe and Mail and made some interesting remarks in his interview with the CBC. Chase uses the words "wanted" and "trying" when referring to the Chinese interfering. Chase doesn't cross the line to claim the Chinese interfered. When asked if actual interference happened, Chase does not directly answer the question and instead appeals to improvements to keeping elections safe. 

Chase seems to criticize the federal cabinet, he doesn't consider the failures of CSIS itself. From what I've established earlier, CSIS and parliamentary officials are at fault for failing to collaborate. It is the responsibility of all government departments and agencies to ensure the protection of sensitive information. Any deviation from that must happen with the utmost cooperation and consideration of all government factions involved. 

It's not just China

One glaring issue from these entirely circumstantial documents is that their evidence is so minimal that one can apply the rhetoric to suggest interference from other countries like Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and even the United States. Why did the leakers only include China as a potential spoiler? Why not include and call out every other country with potentially adverse diplomatic activity in Canada? Of all the countries listed, the United States likely has a more significant impact on our elections than all the others simply due to its dominating social media presence. In addition, countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Russia have been on CSIS' radar for decades due to potential assassinations, diplomatic ties through consulates, and coercive threats to their Canadian diaspora counterparts.

How to Define Electoral Interference 

We've established that the "interference" was based on circumstantial evidence at best. How exactly do we define "electoral interference"? Any definition should include the following provisions: 

(1) any intention or act of foreign adversaries or suspected adversarial Canadian nationals -

(2) influencing our elections either inside or outside the confines of Parliament or other political avenues -

(3) for political, ideological, or religious motivations.

Such a definition is broad enough to include the reported Chinese attempted interference as actual interference and would also consist of anything beyond that as interference. Such a definition would make it completely difficult for any Canadian national or diplomat to interfere with our elections. Any deviation from what is acceptable will result in a legal penalty. 

What does CSIS believe to be "electoral interference"? Does CSIS consider foreigners with connections to foreign diplomats aiding specific campaigns to interfere? Can CSIS prove the intentionality of such actors helping political campaigns? These are all questions that I am sure CSIS has considered. It's simply a matter of applying them to prevent activities threatening Canada.

Interestingly, CSIS itself defines electoral interference quite effectively: 

"This activity can include cultivating influential people to sway decision-making, spreading disinformation on social media, and seeking to influence the outcome of elections covertly. These threats can target all levels of government (federal, provincial, municipal) across Canada."

Under CSIS' current definition of electoral interference, it does do enough to catch what may be considered electoral interference, including the showcased attempted Chinese interference. However, it fails to highlight the intentionality of trying to influence elections. In other words, the simple intent to influence an election (whether it indeed did or not) should signal a penalty for the perpetrators. 

Why Cooperation is Key 

One glaring issue in Canada is the need for intergovernmental cooperation between different levels of government and between government departments/agencies. Governments must cooperate, be transparent, share information, and be confident in each other's affairs to fix these issues. It is unacceptable for an agency to act independently from the government they belong to and the people they represent. Government should not be divisive but instead united. 

The Rouleau Commission - tabled to provide an impartial report on the usage of the Emergencies Act - has provided recommendations for increased intergovernmental cooperation. Although the commission's findings aren't necessarily applicable to foreign interference, the same glaring problems about a lack of information transparency and coordination between governments persist across similar nationalistic issues. 

The commission recommends two essential concepts: 

"(1) The federal government — in conjunction with provincial, Indigenous and territorial governments, and police and intelligence agencies — should develop protocols for information sharing, intelligence gathering and distribution. 

(2) For significant events of a "national, interprovincial, or interterritorial character," those parties shall consider setting up a single national intelligence coordinator.

Due to the prevalence of potential election meddling from foreign actors; it is not acceptable for fragmentation of electoral agencies operating independently from one another—resources from electoral agencies should be combined to prevent any election disruptances. 

In addition, CSIS should work with federal and provincial election agencies to identify and mitigate priority electoral ridings that may be especially prone to potential electoral interference based on demographics, consulate locations, and diplomatic activity. Any findings, investigations, or reports should be shared nationally to bolster and normalize our capabilities against election interference over time. Instances of election meddling should be made public to voters, and penalties for the meddlers should be publicly announced. 

Through these steps, a national culture of preserving and protecting our democratic processes will ensue as governments and citizens play their roles in preventing election meddling.

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