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Canada probe into China election meddling ruled out

Top official David Johnston says while foreign governments are 'undoubtedly attempting to influence candidates and voters in Canada', these did not change the outcome of the elections.

3 minute read
David Johnston, special rapporteur on foreign interference, holds a press conference about his findings and recommendations, in Ottawa, Ontario, May 23. Photo: Reuters
David Johnston, special rapporteur on foreign interference, holds a press conference about his findings and recommendations, in Ottawa, Ontario, May 23. Photo: Reuters

China sought to interfere in Canada's last two elections but failed to sway the outcomes, a top official reviewing allegations of vote meddling said Tuesday.

David Johnston – who was tasked with the investigation after recent media reports of Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 ballots, including secret campaign donations – also ruled out a public inquiry into the matter demanded by the opposition.

China denies the claims.

"Foreign governments are undoubtedly attempting to influence candidates and voters in Canada," Johnston, who previously served as governor general, told a news conference.

He concluded, however, that those efforts did not change the outcome of the votes. He said Canada's 2019 and 2021 elections "were well protected by sophisticated mechanisms and there is no basis to lack confidence in those results."

"Moreover, I have found no examples of ministers, the prime minister or their offices knowingly or negligently failing to act on intelligence," Johnston said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's minority liberal government has faced increasing pressure to explain how it responded to allegations that Beijing sought to influence or subvert Canada's democratic process.

The accusations reported in local media and based on leaked intelligence documents and unnamed sources included secret campaign donations and Chinese operatives working for Canadian candidates or lawmakers in an attempt to influence policy.

More recently, it emerged that Beijing sought to intimidate an opposition Canadian lawmaker and his relatives in Hong Kong over his criticisms of China.

Earlier this month, Ottawa expelled a Chinese diplomat implicated in that scheme.

Beijing, which has called the intimidation accusations "groundless," reacted by sending home a Canadian diplomat and warning Ottawa it was sabotaging relations with its second-largest trading partner.

'Real and growing threat' 

Johnston in his interim report, after reviewing original source intelligence files and interviewing senior intelligence officials, rejected calls for a public inquiry to shed light on the accusations and bolster confidence in Canadian elections.

"A public review of classified intelligence simply cannot be done," he said.

Instead, he said he would hold hearings over the summer and invite testimony from targeted diaspora communities and various experts.

All three opposition party leaders were unmoved by Johnston's findings and demanded open scrutiny.

"We remain resolute that a public inquiry is needed to restore confidence in our electoral system," said Jagmeet Singh, leader of a small leftist faction that has propped up Trudeau's liberals.

Concerns about China interference in G7 democracies were included in the bloc's statement in Hiroshima last week.

"We will never tolerate foreign interference," Trudeau said Tuesday.

He noted such intrusion "is not new," and "doesn't just target our elections. It targets all aspects of society, our research institutes and universities, our businesses, and most commonly, the diverse communities that enrich our country."

In his preliminary findings, Johnston noted common foreign interference techniques included cyberattacks, online influence campaigns, disinformation and "exploitation of human relationships."

He also identified shortcomings in how intelligence is shared among officials, describing "significant and unacceptable gaps in the machinery of government."

Johnston said it is "a real and growing threat and more remains to be done promptly to strengthen our capacity to detect, deter, and counter foreign interference in elections."

Johnston is scheduled to release a final report in October.

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