A “significant” spike in threats to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other senior public figures during the 2021 federal election led to concerns that domestic extremist groups and anti-vaccine protestors could pose a threat to the vote, newly-released documents suggest.
The documents, prepared by a multi-agency committee tasked with safeguarding federal elections from interference, show it wasn’t just hostile foreign states and their proxies that had officials concerned about the integrity of the vote.
In the lead up to the 2021 election domestic extremism was a “key concern” for Canada’s security and intelligence community.
One document prepared by the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) task force said the threat of domestic, ideologically-motivated extremism against Canadian elections has been a worry since the U.S. Capitol riots in January 2021.
“While the issue did not manifest in Canada in the same way as the U.S., there was nevertheless a notable increase in violent rhetoric, threats and incidents during the writ period,” the document, prepared two months after the election, reads.
“Anti-COVID restriction grievances drove both online discussions and in-person protests throughout the campaign period. Violent rhetoric and behaviour escalated throughout August and September, which included a number of public order incidents occurring at various (Trudeau) campaign stops, at the all-party leader’s English debate and at various hospital protests.”
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Just over a month after the SITE report was written, those tensions boiled over into the convoy protests that paralyzed downtown Ottawa and multiple Canada-U.S. border crossings.
The documents were released to the Public Inquiry on Foreign Interference (PIFI), which began its first week of preliminary hearings in Ottawa this week. While the inquiries focus is on hostile foreign states and their proxies attempting to interfere in Canadian affairs, the documents suggest that wasn’t the only threat keeping intelligence officials up at night during the most recent federal election.
A threat assessment from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) included in the documents, suggested while “extreme narratives” and “conspiracy theories” pushed by “influencers” were unlikely to lead to mobilization of violence, the agency “cannot discount the possibility that a subset of threat actors may be galvanized into action.”
“The current information environment continues to be characterized by extreme narratives, particularly those opposed to COVID-19 restrictions,” the 2021 assessment reads.
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Despite those narratives, the December 2021 report from the SITE task force noted that there were just two reported incidents of violence at polling stations during the vote, which were dealt with by local police. There were more “conflicts”, however, when Elections Canada poll workers asked voters to wear a mask while marking their ballots.
While domestic threats were a concern – and likely remain a concern as the country slowly marches towards the next federal election – the documents make clear that Canadian officials view the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the main foreign threat to interfering with national affairs.
CSIS documents obtained by Global News suggested the government “must do more” to counter Beijing’s clandestine operations in Canada.
“Ultimately, better protecting Canadian democratic institutions against FI will require a shift in the government’s perspective and a willingness to take decisive action and impose consequences on perpetrators,” the documents, obtained under access to information law, read.
“Until (foreign interference) is viewed as constituting an existential threat to Canadian democracy and the government forcefully and actively responds, these threats will persist.”
The Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference is scheduled to continue Friday with testimony from Dominic LeBlanc, the federal minister responsible both for Public Safety Canada and democratic institutions.
— With files from Global’s Stewart Bell
© 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.