Former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole says Canada is not doing enough to safeguard democracy and to prevent foreign interference in Canadian politics and public institutions.
“We must realize that Canada has been like the frog in a pot of boiling water,” he told a parliamentary committee on Thursday.
“Multiple governments of both stripes ignored our intelligence agencies who’ve been warning about the heat in the water from China.”
O’Toole, who resigned his seat in June, said the Liberal government’s failure to alert Tory MP Michael Chong, NDP MP Jenny Kwan and himself that China attempted to interfere in the 2021 federal election and specifically targeted their campaigns was “the largest breakdown of accountability” between intelligence services and members of Parliament of which he was aware.
He called on the chair of the public inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian elections, Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue, to use the inquiry to answer why the government did not do more to stop the alleged attempted interference and why it didn’t alert Canadian politicians that China had allegedly targeted their campaigns.
“The fact that we are learning years after the fact about some of the risks they were briefed on only due to leaks and good reporting should trouble Canadians,” he said, also referencing reports of Chinese attempts to influence the 2019 federal election.
Foreign interference has been a persistent issue in Ottawa over the past year amid reporting from The Globe and Mail and Global News on allegations of Chinese meddling in Canada.
As stories broke, so did revelations that Beijing attempted to target sitting politicians, including Chong, and that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was aware of China’s alleged attempts to disrupt specific candidates’ campaigns but that the Liberal government did not inform the MPs.
O’Toole has been clear in the past he believes any interference did not affect the outcome of the election, but he said CSIS must tell MPs if they are being targeted because interference can disrupt that person’s ability to work as an MP and could, he said, affect the safety of their families.
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O’Toole also repeated what he said CSIS agents told him: that there was foreign funding to undermine the Conservative Party’s chances in the 2021 election; that a Chinese government agency created misinformation around O’Toole; that foreign-controlled media and social media spread election misinformation on foreign language channels in Canada; and that China tried to suppress votes in one constituency.
“(With) some of the messages I saw … about me,” O’Toole said, “I probably wouldn’t have voted for me.”
O’Toole told MPs that in his view, government officials not telling him or a party representative who had security clearance about alleged interference attempts during the 2021 election was “professionally negligent.”
The Liberal government appointed former governor general David Johnton as special rapporteur to study foreign election interference allegations. That report concluded, among other things, that Canada has serious issues with how the government handles information, that it has been slow to respond to Chinese efforts, and that foreign actors can act in legal “grey zones.”
Johnston concluded further investigation would be best served by public hearings but not an inquiry because the latter would involve publicly discussing classified information that should not be shared.
Opposition parties continued to call for an inquiry and Johnston later resigned, saying the process had become hyper-partisan.
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Then-public safety minister Bill Blair, in June, blamed CSIS director David Vigneault for not giving him a memo about the alleged targeting of Chong and his family.
In September, and after months of heated debate and calls from opposition parties, the Liberals announced a public inquiry charged with examining interference from China, Russia and other foreign states and entities, assessing the federal government’s ability to detect and deter interference, and making recommendations to better protect Canada’s democratic processes.
The prime minister’s national security adviser told MPs at the committee meeting that in 2021, the memo was sent to deputy ministers with Public Safety Canada, Global Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence but effectively went into a “black hole” and wasn’t shared with the appropriate people.
O’Toole condemned the Liberal government’s handling of security issues during his testimony on Thursday but said the process ahead must be non-partisan.
He said the important economic opportunities with China posed significant challenges for both Liberal and Conservative governments to balance the risk of China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
The Liberal government has promised to implement a foreign agents registry but has not provided a timeline for that initiative.
The inquiry began on Sept. 18 and is scheduled to release an interim report in Feb. 2024 followed by a final report in December 2024.
— With files from Alex Boutilier, Sean Previl, Sean Boyton, David Baxter and The Canadian Press’s Jim Bronskill, Sarah Ritchie and David Fraser
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