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Director of Canada’s spy agency agrees integrity of federal elections not compromised

David Vigneault thinks foreign agent registry would be a useful tool
Shawn Tupper, Deputy Minister of the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness waits to appear as a witness at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) regarding foreign election interference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Canada’s last two elections were not compromised by foreign actors, but a registry that tracks foreign agents who are engaging in political activity would be a useful tool to combat election interference, the director of Canada’s spy agency says.

David Vigneault told a House of Commons committee on Thursday he agrees with the conclusion of an independent panel that oversees election integrity which found the 2021 election was free and fair.

Under a federal protocol, there would be a public announcement if the panel of senior bureaucrats determined that an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.

There was no such announcement in 2021 or concerning the 2019 election.

“Based on my information and based on my experience, I would say that I concur with that conclusion,” Vigneault told the House affairs committee.

He said CSIS takes foreign interference seriously, and that he often briefs the prime minister and other ministers on the issue, including speaking to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino about a possible foreign agent registry.

“I think that tool would be useful. It would not solve our problems but would increase transparency,” Vigneault said.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his Liberal government is working on a foreign agent registry, similar to ones in place in Australia and the United States.

National security agencies have seen foreign attempted interference by China in the last two elections, but not enough to have met the threshold of impacting electoral integrity.

On Thursday, representatives from CSIS, RCMP and Elections Canada were called back to testify following media reports that allege China meddled in Canada’s last two elections.

Vigneault was unable to answer many questions from MPs, including whether the media reports are accurate. He said it’s important to protect certain information because foreign governments are learning how CSIS works, the types of powers it has, and what it can do.

Meanwhile the deputy commissioner of federal policing for the RCMP, Michael Duheme, said the Mounties did not receive any “actionable intelligence” about the 2019 or 2021 elections that would lead to a criminal investigation, and no charges have been laid.

Earlier Thursday, the commissioner of Canada Elections told the committee her office is reviewing past complaints related to foreign interference following recent media reports that allege China tried to meddle in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Caroline Simard said her office received 158 complaints related to 10 situations in the 2019 election, and 16 complaints related to 13 situations during the 2021 election.

It is not clear if any of those complaints were found to be actual cases of foreign interference.

She says two more complaints have been brought to her office since she last testified at the procedure and House affairs committee in November.

“I get thousands of complaints a year, and foreign interference is only one small part of that,” Simard said.

Simard was back at the committee on Thursday, where she told MPs she is not able to provide further comment about the investigation in order to protect its integrity.

Her office can work with CSIS and the RCMP, and Simard does have the power under the Criminal Code to bring charges forward if there is evidence that an offence occurred.

CSIS also stated it is investigating leaks to the media from unnamed security sources.

The Globe and Mail newspaper, citing classified CSIS records, recently reported that 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 Globe said the spy service quoted one Chinese diplomat as saying Beijing likes it when Canadian political parties are fighting with each other, whereas if one has a majority, the party in power can easily implement policies that do not favour China.

The newspaper also said that, according to CSIS, Chinese diplomats are behind undeclared cash donations to campaigns, and have business owners hire international Chinese students and assign them to volunteer in election campaigns.

A recent Global News report cited anonymous sources alleging CSIS had urged senior Liberal party staff to rescind Han Dong’s nomination in a Toronto riding in 2019 due to alleged interference, but that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved his candidacy.

Dong, who won the riding for the Liberals in 2019 and 2021, said his nomination and campaign teams have found no indication of irregularities or compliance issues regarding his candidacy or election.

—Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press