Some thoughts on ecology, evolution and economics

Foreign interference: Keeping governments out of Canadian elections


The likelihood of the Chinese government determining the outcome of a Canadian election or even an important policy decision is quite slim. However, the reporting by the Globe and Mail and other outlets this past year suggests that they are trying. The means for doing this involve political contributions, community connections, threats and social media misinformation. None of this would have received the attention it is getting if it were not for the accusation that another government, the Canadian government, is trying to benefit from these efforts. That will be the subject of the upcoming public inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian elections. Though I suspect that little will be revealed as a result of this inquiry, it will shine a light on a significant flaw in the Canadian constitution – the Prime Minister , the leader of a political party, has control of all levers of the government.

There is an alphabet soup of commissions and committees whose role it is to track and reduce the impact of foreign interference in Canadian politics. Most importantly, NSICOP (for parliamentarians) and NSIRA (for independent intelligence experts) review the information acquired and the actions undertaken by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS, the country’s equivalent to the CIA). In addition, there is a committee of senior civil servants with the mandate to sound the alarm should there be a significant effort to influence the outcome of a federal election. These steps have not satisfied opposition parties , nor many Canadians, partly because the Prime Minister appoints all these people or, in the case of NSICOP, receives reports directly from them rather than through parliament. Another wrinkle to NSICOP, is that once an opposition member receives security clearance to be part of this oversight committee, they can no longer use the information received to criticize the government. Even the Prime Minister’s appointment of David Johnston, a trusted former Governor-General ( the King’s representative in Canada), to serve as an Independent Special Rapporteur did little to defuse the crisis. Hence, the public inquiry into the matter.

David Johnston’s report met with scepticism in parliament, especially since he advised strongly against a public inquiry. He subsequently resigned. However, his access to intelligence and cabinet documents does suggest there is more smoke than fire to this issue. One tendancy he reported on was that specific information in early drafts of intelligence reports were made more general before being presented to the Prime Minister and his staff. He also reported that the strong positions that the Conservative Party of Canada took in the 2021 election made them vulnerable to vote swings in ethnic Chinese ridings whether or not state actors were involved. He found no evidence of large scale involvement by the Chinese government through political contributions or social media misinformation.

A couple of steps to address foreign intervention would include:

  • A Foreign Influence Registry – many countries keep track of those lobbying for other countries within their borders, but spies tend not to declare their nefarious purposes and such an effort will probably not yield much.
  • Clearer and broader thresholds for senior civil servants to communicate to Canadians about interference during elections. If even a single riding is at risk from money, threats or misinformation from abroad, voters should know.
  • Have NSICOP report to the Governor General on matters of electoral interference. This would give opposition parties a voice in interpreting intelligence reports and build confidence that the country’s interests are being put before those of the governing party.