An independent inquiry into foreign election interference begins hearings today. The first item of business is to consider what can and cannot be said publicly.
The inquiry — officially the “Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Election Processes and Democratic Institutions” — cited anonymous security sources and classified documents to suggest that China could interfere in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. It was sparked by media reports last year that accused it of interference.
Secretary Marie-Josée Hogue was asked to investigate the extent to which China, Russia and other countries interfered in these elections, and how information about foreign interference found its way into the federal government. Just last week, the committee asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to share information about possible election interference by India.
But before investigative teams delve into the core issues, they need to decide how national security information can be shared with the public when sensitive documents and sources are involved.
The preliminary hearing will be held Monday through Friday and will examine “the challenges, limitations, and potential adverse effects associated with the public release of sensitive national security information and information.”
“This is one of the biggest challenges facing the European Commission,” Hogue said in a media statement last week.
The inquiry will be heard this week by CSIS Director-General David Vigneault, Public Safety Minister Dominique LeBlanc and national security lawyers.
Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international relations at Carleton University and a former CSIS national security analyst, said the first week will be spent setting ground rules for dealing with sensitive issues and testimony.
She said CSIS has an opportunity here to be more candid about threats to Canadians, despite some legal hurdles surrounding classified information.
“This is a very public platform to make a very definitive statement about the situation in Canada. There is an opportunity here for the services to make their case,” she said.
“I doubt whether the service will take advantage of that opportunity. They are not comfortable in an environment like this, to say the least.”
The investigation is expected to delve into the full picture in March.
The commission is scheduled to investigate until March the extent of foreign interference in past elections.
Carbin needs to create an environment where victims of foreign interference feel able to come forward without retaliation, Hogue said. CSIS said Chinese government officials are trying to intimidate Chinese Canadians and permanent residents from cooperating with the commission.
“My hope is that the voices of the victims will be heard,” Carvin said. “For too long, we’ve looked at foreign interference as a non-Canadian problem. We’ve looked at it as an overseas problem, or a problem that doesn’t affect Canadians. But these are our neighbors.”
The road to the investigation was long and fraught with controversy.
The government initially resisted opposition pressure for an investigation, instead asking the special rapporteur on foreign interference, David Johnston, to look into the matter and decide whether an investigation was needed.
The former governor general concluded that foreign governments were trying to influence Canadian politics, but recommended that the investigation be held back, arguing that much of the sensitive information investigated must remain confidential.
Opposition parties were furious at Mr Johnston’s conclusions. The NDP has introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling for his resignation. The motion was passed with support from the Conservative Party and the Bloc Quebecois. Both parties have questioned Mr. Johnston’s impartiality in the past.
Johnston resigned from his role in June, saying his role was too mired in political controversy to continue.
Opposition MPs then argued that a public inquiry into foreign interference was the only way to maintain Canadians’ confidence in the electoral system.
Conflict over party status
The study remains mired in controversy, raising questions about what it can achieve.
In December, Hogue rejected a petition from a coalition of human rights groups to restrict the status of three men accused of having ties to the Chinese government.
The Human Rights Coalition opposes granting full status to Independent MP Handong, a former Liberal MP, and Markham Deputy Mayor Michael Chan and Senator Yuen Pau-wu, citing their “links to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” and the possibility of support” disqualified them.
In response, Hogue wrote, “We cannot make findings of fact or jump to conclusions before hearing the evidence.” The men deny the charges.
Mr Carvin said he shared the coalition’s concerns that the presence of the three men could undermine investigative efforts.
“Will they cross-examine victims of foreign interference? That’s a big concern,” she said.
Mr Hogue also rejected the Conservative Party’s request for a full parliamentary candidacy, giving him intervenor status instead.
The Conservative Party said in a statement that Mr Hogue’s decision was “deeply concerning” and “undermines the credibility of the entire process”.
Michael Chong, a Conservative MP and foreign affairs commentator who has himself been the target of an interference campaign, stands perfectly in this inquiry. The NDP also received intervenor status, but NDP MP Jenny Kwan, who said she was told by CSIS that she was being targeted by the Chinese government, received full party status in the investigation.
Hogue’s interim report is due May 3, with a final report due by the end of the year.