Canada’s last two elections were not compromised by foreign actors, the director of Canada’s spy agency told a committee of MPs Thursday.
But still at a House of Commons committee which is studying foreign interference, opposition MPs voted in favour of a motion calling for a public inquiry on foreign interference.
David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told the committee he agrees with the conclusion of a panel that oversees election integrity, which found the 2021 election was free and fair.
Under a federal protocol, there would be a public announcement if the panel of senior bureaucrats determined that an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada’s ability to have a fair election.
There was no such announcement for either the 2019 or 2021 federal elections.
“Based on my information and based on my experience, I would say that I concur with that conclusion,” Vigneault said.
Opposition MPs however want to know more, so the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois voted in favour of an NDP motion to launch “a national public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canada’s democratic system.”
The Liberal MPs on the committee voted against the motion.
The motion is not binding so the government does not have to launch such an inquiry and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has suggested that there are other mechanisms currently in place to investigate foreign interference.
The NDP now plans to bring a similar motion to the House of Commons as a whole.
The Liberal government has faced pressure to explain what it knows about foreign meddling in elections following media reports alleging China meddled in the last two elections. The reports cite unnamed security sources and leaked intelligence.
National security agencies say they have seen attempted interference by China in the last two ballots, but not enough to affect electoral integrity.
David Morrison, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, told the committee that he receives intelligence reports daily, and cautioned Canadians about what’s in them.
“Intelligence is not truth and it is often inaccurate, or partial, or incomplete, or designed to throw us off our track,” said Morrison, who has also served as acting national security adviser.
The Globe and Mail newspaper, citing classified CSIS records, recently reported that China worked to help ensure a Liberal minority victory in the 2021 general election as well as defeat Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing.
The Globe said the spy service quoted one Chinese diplomat as saying Beijing likes it when Canadian political parties are fighting with each other, whereas if one has a majority, the party in power can easily implement policies that do not favour China.
The newspaper also said that, according to CSIS, Chinese diplomats are behind undeclared cash donations to campaigns, and have business owners hire international Chinese students and assign them to volunteer in election campaigns.
A recent Global News report cited anonymous sources alleging CSIS had urged senior Liberal party staff to rescind Han Dong’s nomination in a Toronto riding in 2019 due to alleged interference, but that Trudeau approved his candidacy.
Dong, who won the riding for the Liberals in 2019 and 2021, said his nomination and campaign teams have found no indication of irregularities or compliance issues regarding his candidacy or election.
Morrison said Canadians would be better served “if the debate took into account what intelligence is and what intelligence is not.”
“Misreading or taking out of context an intelligence report can lead to divisiveness, which itself plays into the hands of our adversaries.”
Michael Duheme, the deputy commissioner of federal policing for the RCMP, told MPs the Mounties did not receive any “actionable intelligence” about the 2019 or 2021 elections that would lead to a criminal investigation, and no charges have been laid.
Vigneault said he often briefs the prime minister and other ministers on foreign interference, and that he has spoken to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino about a possible registry to track foreign agents who are engaging in political activity.
“I think that tool would be useful. It would not solve our problems but would increase transparency,” Vigneault said.
Trudeau said this week the government is working on such a registry, similar to those in place in Australia and the United States.
The commissioner of Canada Elections also testified Thursday, saying her office is investigating past complaints related to foreign interference.
Caroline Simard said her office received 158 complaints related to 10 situations in the 2019 election, and 16 complaints related to 13 situations during the 2021 election. It is not clear if any of those complaints were found to be actual cases of foreign interference.
She said two more complaints have been brought to her office since she last testified at the House affairs committee in November. “I get thousands of complaints a year, and foreign interference is only one small part of that.”
Simard said she was not able to provide further comment about the investigation in order to protect its integrity.
Vigneault also told MPs that CSIS and its partners are investigating the leaks to the media about alleged foreign interference.