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Foreign interference may have ‘influenced’ the result of one stage in 2021, research shows

OTTAWA – Foreign interference attempts did not change who won Canada’s last two federal elections, but may have changed the outcome of one election in 2021, a public inquiry concluded Friday.

OTTAWA – Foreign interference attempts did not change who won Canada’s last two federal elections, but may have changed the outcome of one election in 2021, a public inquiry concluded Friday.

According to a preliminary report by Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue, the extent of the impact of foreign interference is unknown, although the number of breeds affected is small.

“The ultimate consequences of foreign interference remain uncertain,” she said in her interim report.

She mentioned the 2021 results in British Columbia’s Steveston-Richmond East riding, where she said there is a “reasonable possibility” that a foreign interference campaign targeting Conservative candidate Kenny Chiu cost him the seat.

In her report, Hogue wrote that the campaign “could have influenced the outcome” of Chiu’s riding in 2021. But in a subsequent statement, she appeared to go a step further.

“There is a situation where disinformation could have led to the election of one candidate over another,” said Hogue, who did not answer questions Friday.

“But I can’t say that for sure.”

Misleading information about Chiu and former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole appeared in the media and on social media sites linked to Beijing. They were portrayed as anti-China and tried to discourage Chinese Canadians from voting for them.

The actual impact of that campaign on the final vote is “difficult to determine,” Hogue said.

“In Canada, the way someone votes is secret. It is therefore not possible to directly link the misleading media stories to the way a particular voter cast his vote,” the report said.

“And even if I were to assume that some votes were changed, there is no way to know if enough votes were changed to affect the outcome.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month that several intelligence and security agencies found that “no rides” were affected or changed as a result of foreign interference.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said Hogue’s report does not support what Trudeau told the public.

“This report is a damning set of conclusions and findings in the first phase of this investigation, about what the Trudeau government has indicated over the past 18 months, and contradicts much of what the government has told us over that period,” said Chong. Friday.

O’Toole testified during the inquiry’s public hearings that he believed the misinformation could have cost him as many as nine seats in the 2021 election.

That wasn’t enough to change the overall results — the Liberals won 160 seats to the Conservatives’ 119 — but O’Toole said he thinks victories in that election would have allowed him to stay on as leader. He was ousted by the Conservative caucus in February, less than five months after the election.

Hogue said the evidence she has seen does not allow her to draw conclusions about the broader impact of the interference.

“It is not my intention to minimize the legitimate concerns of those who raised these issues. My findings are limited to the evidence before me,” she said.

The committee also investigated a 2019 Liberal nomination battle in the Toronto area in Don Valley North, where Han Dong won the candidacy.

Canada’s Security and Intelligence Agency flagged a possible plot involving a busload of Chinese international students with forged documents provided by a proxy agent.

Hogue said there was not enough evidence to draw conclusions about what actually happened, nor was it within the commission’s mandate to do so.

“However, this incident highlights the extent to which nominating contests can be a gateway for foreign states seeking to interfere in our democratic processes,” she said.

The criteria for voting in a nomination race, which is decided by political parties, do not appear to be very strict, nor do the control measures, she added. That is something Hogue wants to investigate further in the next phase of the research.

Dong went on to win the seat in the 2019 election, but left the Liberal Party to sit as an independent MP last year when the allegations came to light.

The committee also heard evidence about a telephone conversation between Dong and a Chinese consular official in which they discussed the arbitrary detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China. The pair were jailed in December 2018 in retaliation for Canada’s role in the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou days earlier.

Media reports based on leaked intelligence claimed that Dong argued against their release in that conversation with the consular officer, something Dong has denied.

A summary of intelligence released by the investigation shows that Dong told the Chinese official that even if the “Two Michaels” were released, opposition parties would view it as confirmation that a crackdown on the PRC was effective.

Hogue made no mention of that conversation in her interim report.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2024.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press