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Foreign interference inquiry to hear testimony from diaspora communities

A federal inquiry into foreign interference is set to hear from diaspora communities Wednesday to kick off two weeks of testimony about meddling allegations and how the government responded to them.

The hearings will focus on possible foreign interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two general elections.

The commission of inquiry, led by Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue, expects testimony from more than 40 people, including community members, political party representatives and federal election officials.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his cabinet and various senior government officials are also slated to appear at the hearings, which run from March 27 to April 10.

An initial report of findings from the commission is due May 3.

The inquiry will then shift to broader policy issues, looking at the ability of the government to detect, deter and counter foreign interference. A final report is expected by the end of the year.

Attempts to interfere in Canadian affairs have long been a reality. A 1986 intelligence report warned that Beijing was using open political tactics and secret operations to influence and exploit the Chinese diaspora in Canada.

In February of last year, the Globe and Mail newspaper, quoting classified Canadian Security Intelligence Service records, said China worked to help ensure a Liberal minority victory in the 2021 general election as well as defeat Conservative politicians considered unfriendly to Beijing.

The next month, the federal government announced that an independent rapporteur would look into foreign interference, one of several measures to counter meddling and strengthen confidence in the electoral process.

Former governor general David Johnston, who would soon take on the task, said in a report last May there were “serious shortcomings” in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government.

However, he found no examples of ministers, the prime minister or their offices knowingly or negligently failing to act on intelligence, advice or recommendations.

Johnston said several leaked materials that raised legitimate questions were misconstrued in some media reports, presumably because of a lack of context.

Finally, he recommended against a public inquiry, saying a commissioner would encounter the same obstacles of secrecy that marked his work. “This would be unsatisfying, just as my process is unsatisfying, because it cannot be done in public,” Johnston wrote.

Amid additional leaks to the media and pressure from opposition parties, however, the government announced in September that Hogue would lead a public inquiry.

The inquiry held an initial set of hearings in late January and early February to solicit ideas on how to disclose as much information as possible about such a highly sensitive subject.

Even so, Hogue said earlier this month she had agreed to a federal request to present some evidence in private. The commissioner said she was satisfied that the disclosure of certain classified information could harm Canada or its allies.

As part of the federal efforts announced in March 2023, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, known as NSICOP, was asked to assess the state of foreign interference in federal electoral processes, including meddling attempts in the last two general elections.

NSICOP’s report was recently submitted to federal ministers. A declassified version of the report is to be tabled in Parliament within 30 sitting days.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, an independent, external review body, also provided a classified report to the government earlier this month on the dissemination of intelligence on political foreign interference.

The review agency said Monday it “believes that it is in the public interest to report on this matter” and will therefore issue a special version to the prime minister to be tabled in Parliament.

The watchdog said it is consulting with the government to ensure that the report does not contain injurious or privileged information. “NSIRA looks forward to this process being concluded in a timely manner.”