The prime minister’s chief of staff offered up few details to a House of Commons committee studying foreign interference in the last two elections, frustrating Conservatives and New Democrats who say her lack of answers Friday will erode trust.
Katie Telford said she should not be at the procedure and House affairs committee answering questions about national security, but she agreed to appear “because I want Parliament to work.”
As a senior adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Telford has top-secret security clearance.
“In my years in this job, I have seen a huge range of intelligence from all parts of the world. Some of it has been wrong … some of it, right,” Telford said.
“Some we may never know or only with time will we learn if it’s true.”
Trudeau’s national security and intelligence adviser, Jody Thomas, also provided MPs with a document Friday that contained the official record of dates the prime minister had been formally briefed on the issue of “foreign election interference.”
The document requested by the committee shows Trudeau received six briefings since 2018, but the list didn’t include briefings or conversations that weren’t formally scheduled.
Cabinet ministers and political parties also received formal briefings on the issue during that time frame.
Telford said she was limited in what she could disclose to the committee because it could put Canadians in danger, hurt the country’s relationship with its allies and lead to an inability to get future intelligence.
“I can’t provide information of what I have been briefed on in a public setting,” she said.
The Conservatives pressed Telford to confirm specific allegations reported by Global News and the Globe and Mail that China meddled in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
Telford suggested that some of the reporting was inaccurate, without providing details.
When asked about allegations reported by Global News that the Chinese government flowed funds to a pro-Beijing network in Canada that included at least 11 federal candidates in the 2019 election, she only said: “The connection being made between these candidates and the funds were inaccurate.”
The Globe and Mail also recently reported, citing classified CSIS records, 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.
Telford, whose words echoed the earlier testimony of Trudeau’s security adviser, said she would not act outside boundaries that have been set by national security officialsand the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, whose director also testified at the committee.
For weeks, Conservatives had pushed back against a Liberal filibuster at the committee that tried to block a motion to summon Telford’s testimony.
It was only after the Tories proposed a motion in the broader House of Commons to force a vote on Telford’s testimony that she agreed to appear.
But when she did, Conservatives said they were disappointed by the result.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper said Telford’s lack of answers did not inspire confidence in the government’s handling of foreign interference concerns, and instead invited suspicion.
His colleague Michael Barrett expressed similar dismay.
“She was … unwilling to even acknowledge the prime minister has read what was in his daily reading package,” he said.
“Obviously the prime minister’s chief of staff is not where we’re going to get those answers.”
Barrett said an open, clear, transparent public inquiry is needed.
The New Democrats, who have also said they want a broader public inquiry, said the foreign interference allegations have harmed Canadians’ trust in their institutions.
NDP MP Rachel Blaney said during the committee hearing that Telford’s answers were even less clear than Trudeau’s remarks so far on the matter.
“I am not one to bring in staff members lightly … however, every time we turn around, it feels like there’s another article, another thing coming out,” she said.
“And this slippery slope of information coming in and out, and not being clear, is leading people to distrust.”
The Liberal government has come under pressure in recent months to explain what Canada is doing about accusations of Chinese interference following the leaks to media outlets from unnamed security sources.
The Conservatives and NDP both accept the results of the 2019 and 2021 elections. And a panel of bureaucrats determined the past two elections remained free and fair, an assessment that national security agencies agree with.
Telford said foreign interference doesn’t fall under the authority of the prime minister or cabinet, and if disciplinary action is needed, it’s dealt with by national security agencies, including the RCMP, as well as Elections Canada.
Trudeau recently appointed former governor general David Johnston as a special rapporteur to investigate allegations of foreign interference in the last two federal elections. It was advice he took from Telford, she said.
“We actually needed someone … to figure out what was needed,” she said, and to identify gaps in the investigative processes of the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.
“What were they not able to cover? What did the public still need beyond that to ensure that we are instilling the confidence in them that they deserve to have in our institutions?” she went on.
“Because that’s extraordinarily important to us.”
She also mentioned that the government’s communication could have been better following the media reports that have since dominated the political debate on the Hill.
Johnston’s recommendations, which could involve calling for a public inquiry or some other independent review process, will be made public.
The Liberal government has said it will follow the guidance.
“He’s actually going to be reporting back in a few weeks, and I hope we can wait for that so we can take the next appropriate steps,” Telford said.
The government has asked Johnston to report back by May 23 on whether a formal public inquiry is required, and by the end of October with the final results of his investigation.