OTTAWA, Ont. — Erin O’Toole says Chinese interference is to blame for the defeat of as many as nine Conservative candidates in the 2021 federal election.
The former Conservative leader’s remark, made during a podcast this week, advances an unusually specific allegation at a time of widespread warnings about state actors trying to undermine Canada’s democratic process.
“We lost eight or nine seats to foreign interference from China,” O’Toole, who did not provide any evidence to back his accusation, told Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith on an episode of “Uncommons” recorded June 6.
O’Toole, under whom the Conservatives won the popular vote but lost the election, was unavailable for an interview Wednesday, his office said.
Conservative MP Michael Chong told POLITICO he shares O’Toole’s views.
Chong, who serves as their party’s foreign affairs critic, said Wednesday that after the election he was initially cautious about blaming Beijing for interfering in the vote.
The evidence at the time, he said, wasn’t conclusive — but that has since changed. Chong says research from McGill University now provides proof of interference.
“The communist leadership in Beijing did interfere in the last federal election by spreading disinformation through proxies on Chinese-language social media platforms that contributed to the defeat of a number of Conservative MPs,” Chong said.
While one of the study’s findings concluded the 2021 election was “minimally impacted by mis- and disinformation,” researchers found Chinese officials and state media worked “with an apparent aim to convince Canadians of Chinese origin to vote against the Conservative Party.”
Still, the study found no evidence of riding-specific impact.
“We find no clear evidence that there was a concerted effort by the Chinese state to interfere in the election,” the report said. “Moreover, we find Canadian-Chinese issues were not central to the campaign nor were they top of mind for voters.”
A special task force, established by the government to monitor for foreign threats to the country’s democratic process, didn’t flag anything last year, either.
Brandon Champagne, a spokesperson for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told POLITICO that a public notification must be made after voting day if top national security officials determined “an incident or a series of events has occurred that threatens Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.”
“No public announcement was made related to the 2021 federal election,” Champagne said in an email.
Since last fall’s vote, the issue of foreign interference in Canadian elections has been raised frequently in Parliament.
The alarms about state actors have also been amplified by CSIS director David Vigneault as well as think tanks and academics.
Pressure has been building on the Trudeau government to take action.
After last September’s election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed senior Cabinet members, including Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, to combat foreign interference.
Late last month, Mendicino sent a mandate letter to CSIS director David Vigneault that directed him to contribute to a government response “to protect Canada’s democratic institutions, including the federal electoral process, against foreign interference and disinformation.”
The Conservatives recently forced the return of a special parliamentary committee on Canada-China relations, which could study the issue — and try to turn up the heat on the Liberals. Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen told reporters this week that opposition parties may bring the committee back as soon as this summer.
A report last December by Global News, citing unnamed sources, said the Conservatives had identified 13 ridings where they believe interference campaigns by foreign actors targeted the party’s candidates.
O’Toole’s complaint to Erskine-Smith this week offered a rare amount of detail from a senior lawmaker.
Melanie Paradis, who was O’Toole’s deputy campaign manager, said he was informed of the eight or nine ridings where they believe enough voters were swayed as part of the election post-mortem.
Paradis told POLITICO on Wednesday that a post-election report by Conservative MP James Cumming included a section on the party’s communications with the Chinese-Canadian community and its policies on China. Sections of the report have been leaked to the media, but the document has not been made public.
“Our democracy is under threat by bad actors, both foreign and domestic,” she said in an email. “These threats include rampant misinformation and disinformation — perpetuated by China, Russia, and other states, but also right here in Canada.”
Mitch Heimpel, who served as O’Toole’s director of parliamentary affairs, told POLITICO on Wednesday that government national security officials contacted the Conservative campaign right around voting day with concerns about potential foreign interference.
Heimpel, who was not part of those conversations, said the authorities told the campaign efforts were underway “to amplify what may not be correct information about candidates or issues in the campaign that we think you should be aware of.”
He said there were many examples of potential interference from 2021 — but the “flashpoint” involved Vancouver-area Conservative candidate Kenny Chiu, who lost in his bid for reelection.
Chiu was targeted by a misinformation campaign on social media, including the Chinese-language WeChat, in the leadup to the election over a bill he proposed earlier in the year to tackle foreign influence in Canadian elections. His legislation, which didn’t pass, proposed to create a registry of “individuals acting on behalf of a foreign principal.”
Heimpel said he’s unaware specifically which ridings O’Toole may be referring to, but noted the former leader’s campaign had concerns about seats around Vancouver and Toronto.
For example, he said the Conservatives improved their results in 2021 across the province of Ontario by about 2 percent compared to the 2019 election. While the province moved more toward the Tories, he said some ridings, like Richmond Hill and Markham-Unionville, clearly moved away from the party.
The factors behind the weaker results aren’t clear cut.
Heimpel acknowledged the party also had logistical problems with “ethnocultural outreach.” He added that while possible foreign influence or interference was an important issue, “the campaign itself made mistakes.”
Robert Batherson, the Conservative Party’s president, told POLITICO that the subject of foreign interference was discussed in many media reports after the election.
“The party does not have anything to add at this point,” Batherson said Wednesday in an email.
In February, a majority of the Conservative caucus abruptly voted to oust O’Toole as leader. The Toronto MP has kept a low profile since that time and said little about his dismissal.
Under his guidance in the 2021 election, the Conservatives maintained their position as the main opposition party to Trudeau’s Liberals, but prevented the prime minister from recapturing a majority hold on the House of Commons.
O’Toole’s comment to Erskine-Smith came during discussion of his ouster. He suggested that had the Conservatives won more ridings he may have kept his job.
The Conservatives won 119 seats in 2021, compared to 160 for the Liberals. An additional eight or nine seats would have fallen short of changing the overall outcome, but O’Toole insisted it may have been a difference maker for him.
“That would have given me a little more sturdy of a leg to stand on if I’d held it to a very small minority and we’d had a record win for the opposition,” O’Toole said of a scenario where he won the additional ridings. “But that didn’t happen and I wasn’t willing to backtrack on some of the things I thought we were making progress on.”
Zi-Ann Lum contributed to this report.
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( Information from politico.com was used in this report. To Read More, click here )