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HomeBusinessForeign Interference Commission: Chiu, O’Toole and Kwan in their own words

Foreign Interference Commission: Chiu, O’Toole and Kwan in their own words

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Bob Mackin

A task force set-up under the Liberal government to detect and deter foreign meddling in Canadian elections knew China was targeting the Conservative Party, but did nothing about it.

The Foreign Interference Commission, under Quebec judge Marie-Josee Hogue, heard April 3 in Ottawa that the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) task force withheld key information from the opposition party in 2021.

Foreign Interference Inquiry Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue (PIFI)

Ground zero was Steveston-Richmond East, where 2019-elected Conservative MP Kenny Chiu faced Liberal challenger Parm Bains. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in search of majority power, called the snap election in the middle of August of 2021 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as Canada faced a mini cold war with China. Shaughnessy mansion-dwelling Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was fighting extradition to the U.S. while Canadian hostages Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor languished in Chinese jails. A mystery raged in Winnipeg about the two Chinese scientists fired from Canada’s highly secured virus laboratory. 

Chiu had gained the attention of Chinese Communist Party-friendly media on both sides of the Pacific earlier in the year. The supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement voted to condemn China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims as a genocide. He also tabled a private member’s bill calling for a registry of anyone lobbying on behalf of a foreign government. 

Then came the nasty disinformation campaign against Chiu that culminated in his defeat and Bains’s victory on the Sept. 20 election day. 

“When I became a school board trustee [in 2011], I intentionally severed my ties with my relatives in China, with the understanding that I [being a politician in Canada] will put them in danger. In 2021, unfortunately, it seems like my worry has come true. But then I thought I would be protected by my country and I was deeply troubled, disappointed that I was exposed, and the government doesn’t seem to care,” Chiu testified.

“Now that, through the commission, I’ve learned that they’ve known all about it. It’s almost like I was drowning and they are watching. The best they could do, by the way, is to let me know that I’m drowning. I don’t need their notification, I need their help. So that’s the overall disappointment mixing with the emotion of anger that I have. And yes, I do not believe the way the Chinese Communist Party treating people in Hong Kong or even just general Chinese, let alone Uyghur Muslims, are right and justifiable. But I, by and large, I have focused on how I can propose my party, can propose a view, a way of how Canada can be governed better. And for that, I’ve been betrayed. That’s how I see it.”

Kenny Chiu on April 3, 2024 (Foreign Interference Commission)

“As a racialized Chinese-Canadian, for somebody who voiced up for the benefit of Canada, in the House of Commons, when I heard hurtful remarks, not just from any MP, but from the Prime Minister of Canada. When we asked about the Wuhan virus, when we asked why are we not shutting down flights from Wuhan in early 2020 — because of our constituents who are from China, asking us, why are we exposing Canada to that? So we asked that question in the House of Commons. The answer has always been, mindful of racism, don’t be an anti-Asian. To me, as an Asian-Canadian, it’s very insulting and for that, to come from the top leader of our country, it’s doubling injury with insults.”

Erin O’Toole led the Conservatives in the 2021 election and ran on a platform that included a stronger foreign policy in the face of a belligerent China under Xi Jinping. 

O’Toole told the inquiry that foreign interference cost his party as many as nine seats on election day, which led to the end of his leadership. He retired from politics last year. 

“I remember the last time I was in British Columbia during the campaign,” O’Toole told Hogue. “I thought about it because I was hearing from some of our organizers saying we’ve got to do something about this, this is out of control. I heard from Kenny and his team, just how targeted and everyone was tense, and people were fearful with the amount of misinformation in the Richmond seats. We were doing well at that point in the campaign, so, you’re consciously, you know, they say in politics don’t get off-message. So I would have thought that that might have seemed a little bit off-message and it might have contributed, if I started talking about foreign interference from China, the portrayals of me have being obsessed with China and mentioning it 31 times in the platform, these sorts of narratives, I might have been accidentally reinforcing that. Which is why I think some of these safeguards for our system need to be out of the hands of politicians who are in the midst of a campaign. We need structural and professional and independent, impartial organizations to determine safeguards to protect people’s franchise.”

Erin O’Toole on April 3, 2024 (Foreign Interference Commission)

“I wished I could have a do-over. What I certainly would have done is made sure that we had a much more sophisticated approach to WeChat in particular, but Mandarin and Cantonese advertising publications and campaign workers to counter what was a deluge of misinformation against us. We were just not prepared on that platform, period. You know, our social media strategies, and our policy development was all still primarily focused at traditional media, and what you might call Silicon Valley platforms like Facebook and Twitter and things like this. We did not have the capacity to really even understand what was going on WeChat…

“Folks within the government knew that there was a level of foreign interference occurring and I think we owe it to the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Canadians that it was targeted at, we owed it to them to learn them, and to perhaps give them alternative sources for unbiased news or the ability to report instances of intimidation. One vote matters in our democracy, and I think we have to do a little bit more particularly for the Chinese-Canadian population, but also some other diaspora organizations, to make sure that they’re not being intimidated to exercise their full rights here.”

Jenny Kwan was seeking her third term in 2021 in one of the NDP’s safest seats, Vancouver East. But a Chinatown leader, Fred Kwok of the Chinese Benevolent Association, promoted the Liberal candidate, charity lawyer and former Paralympian Josh Vander Vies.

Kwok even advertised a free lunch at the Floata banquet hall in Chinatown to help Vander Vies get attention. 

Kwan and the NDP complained to Elections Canada and the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections (OCCE) over the apparent vote-buying attempt by a representative of a well-known pro-Beijing organization. 

Fast forward to March 2024. OCCE issued a $500 fine to Christopher Richardson, an accountant on the Vander Vies campaign, for failing to report that the lunch was paid for by a contributor as a non-monetary contribution, not as an election expense, on the Candidate’s Electoral Campaign Return. 

Jenny Kwan on April 3, 2024 (Foreign Interference Commission)

Unlike Chiu, Kwan was returned to Ottawa. But she told the commission she was disappointed by the outcome of the investigation. 

“You have multiple government agencies, who have a bit of the ingredients. Let’s put an analogy that I can understand, of baking a cake. Everybody has a little bit of the ingredients here and there and multiple agencies, the RCMP, CSIS, OCCE, this [SITE] task force, for example, they all have it. Then when you want to bake the cake, you want to make sure all the ingredients mixed well together in the order in which it should be to produce the product,” Kwan testified. 

“But that didn’t happen here. Instead, what’s happened is that you have a half-baked product, because everybody owned their own ingredients, and threw it in whenever they felt like it and that doesn’t make any sense at all. So that’s a failure of the system. And then when you have all the tools to follow, to try and get the product, you think that you use all the tools. 

“But it seemed to me that OCCE did not use all the tools because they did not compel the restaurant to produce the receipt and to follow the cost to verify the amount of that free lunch event. So it’s a failure of a system to me, I’m deeply disappointed about it. The worst thing for me about all of this is, aside from my complaint itself, set that aside for a minute, is what message is being sent to public.

“We look at government agencies, and they are supposed to instil confidence and trust and faith in the hearts and minds of the public. We rely on them to do the very work to investigate and to verify and to ensure that the law is being followed. But I think that in this instance, the investigation failed in that and in relation to foreign interference. The message here is that if in fact there was foreign interference that took place in this free lunch event, the message sent to them is you can get away with it. That is the message and that is not helpful.”

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