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Foreign interference may have 'impacted' 2021 result in one riding, inquiry finds

OTTAWA — Foreign meddling attempts didn't change who won the last two federal elections in Canada, but may have changed the result in one riding in 2021, a public inquiry concluded Friday.
A public inquiry has found foreign meddling attempts didn’t change who won the last two elections, but it may have changed the result in one riding in 2021. Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue listens to a lawyer speak during the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, in Ottawa, Thursday, March 28, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Foreign meddling attempts didn't change who won the last two federal elections in Canada, but may have changed the result in one riding in 2021, a public inquiry concluded Friday.

A preliminary report by commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue said the extent of the impact of foreign interference is unknown, though the number of races involved is small.

"The ultimate effects of foreign interference remain uncertain," she said in her interim report.

She singled out the 2021 results in the British Columbia riding of Steveston—Richmond East, where she said there is a "reasonable possibility" that a foreign interference campaign targeting Conservative candidate Kenny Chiu may have cost him the seat.

In her report, Hogue wrote that the campaign "could have impacted the result" in Chiu's riding in 2021. But in a subsequent statement, she appeared to go a step further.

"There is one riding where disinformation may have led to the election of one candidate over another," said Hogue, who did not take questions Friday. 

"But I cannot say for sure." 

Misleading information about Chiu and former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole appeared in media outlets and social media sites with ties to Beijing, painting them as anti-China and trying to dissuade Chinese Canadians from voting for them. 

The actual impact of that campaign on the final vote is "difficult to determine," Hogue found. 

"In Canada, how someone votes is secret. It is therefore not possible to directly link the misleading media narratives with how any given voter cast their ballot," the report said. 

"And even if I were to assume that some votes were changed, there is no way to know whether enough votes were changed to affect the result."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month that several intelligence and security agencies found "not a single riding" was impacted or changed as a result of foreign interference. 

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said Hogue's report doesn't support what Trudeau told the public.

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

Chiu said in an interview Friday Hogue was given a too-narrow mandate and little time to complete her work. 

One of the issues is that the terms of reference were focused on the 2019 and 2021 elections, Chiu said. But that premise assumes that outside the time frame of the election, there was no foreign interference and that there has been "little impact on our democracy," he said. 

"And that, unfortunately, is not the truth."

He said China took issue with him because he introduced, in the spring prior to the fall election, a proposal for a foreign influence registry. "The story did not start with the election in 2021."

Chiu called for the Liberal government to follow through with its promise of a foreign agent registry. "If we can’t even move one inch on this lowest-hanging fruit, then there is no point in talking about further activities," he said. 

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

That was not enough to change the overall results — the Liberals won 160 seats to the Conservatives' 119 — but O'Toole said he thinks wins in those ridings 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 doesn’t allow her to make any conclusions about the wider impact of the interference.

"I do not mean to minimize the legitimate concerns of those who raised these issues. My findings are limited to the evidence before me," she said. 

The commission also scrutinized a 2019 Liberal nomination battle in the Toronto-area riding of Don Valley North, where Han Dong won the candidacy.

The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service flagged a potential plot involving a busload of Chinese international students with falsified documents provided by a proxy agent.

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

"However, this incident makes clear the extent to which nomination contests can be gateways for foreign states who wish to interfere in our democratic processes," she said. 

The criteria for voting in a nomination race, which is decided by political parties, does not seem very stringent and neither do the control measures, she added. That is something Hogue plans to examine further in the next phase of the inquiry.

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

The commission also heard evidence about a phone call 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 imprisoned in December 2018 in what is widely seen to be retaliation for Canada's role in detaining Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou days earlier.

Media reports based on leaked intelligence alleged that Dong advocated against their release in that conversation with the consular official, something Dong has denied. 

"As I said from the beginning, I did not advocate for the delayed release of the Two Michaels and I am not a 'witting affiliate' of Chinese foreign interference networks," Dong said in a statement Friday.

A summary of the intelligence released by the inquiry suggest Dong advised the Chinese official that even if the "Two Michaels" were released, opposition parties would view it as affirmation that a hard line approach to the People's Republic of China was effective. 

Hogue did not make any mention of that conversation in her interim report. 

-With files from Anja Karadeglija.

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

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press