World takes note from Canada’s probe into China election meddling

2021 Canadian election

People cast their ballots at the Delta Hotel on voting day for the 2021 Canadian election in Montreal, Quebec on September 20, 2021. China sought to interfere in Canada's last two elections but failed to sway the outcomes, a top official reviewing allegations of vote meddling said on May 23, 2023. 

Photo credit: File | AFP

China sought to interfere in Canada's last two elections but failed to sway the outcomes, a top official reviewing allegations of vote meddling said, potentially reflecting the extent of intrusions for interconnected economies.

David Johnston -- who was tasked with the investigation after recent media reports of Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 ballots, including secret campaign donations -- also ruled out a public inquiry into the matter demanded by the opposition.

"Foreign governments are undoubtedly attempting to influence candidates and voters in Canada," Johnston, who previously served as governor-general, told a news conference.

He noted such intrusion "is not new," and "doesn't just target our elections. It targets all aspects of society, our research institutes and universities, our businesses, and most commonly, the diverse communities that enrich our country."

He concluded, however, that those efforts did not change the outcome of the votes. He said Canada's 2019 and 2021 elections "were well protected by sophisticated mechanisms and there is no basis to lack confidence in those results."

"Moreover, I have found no examples of ministers, the prime minister or their offices knowingly or negligently failing to act on intelligence," Johnston said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's minority liberal government has faced increasing pressure to explain how it responded to allegations that Beijing sought to influence or subvert Canada's democratic process.

But more widely, claims of hacking or cyber threats have been rife for the last five years with fingers pointing at China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. More recently, in May, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, as part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance said there had been attempted compromise on critical installations. It agreed with the US National Security Agency (NSA) discovery of "indicators of compromise" first made by Microsoft. The US tech giant termed labelled the Volt Typhoon, a Chinese state actor, for attempted intrusion since mid-2021.

According to Microsoft, Volt Typhoon “typically focuses on espionage and information gathering” and that it was “pursuing development of capabilities that could disrupt critical communications infrastructure between the United States and Asia region during future crises.”

The NSA said in May that this actor “is living off the land, using built-in network tools to evade our defences and leaving no trace behind," Joyce said in a statement.

“That makes it imperative for us to work together to find and remove the actor from our critical networks.”

More recently, other countries outside of the G7 have also been targeted. Last week, China was fighting off claims of hacking government data in Kenya ostensibly to check capability of repayment of debts owed to China, reflecting that targets are not just politically motivated intrusions.

China termed the revelations as “groundless, farfetched and sheer nonsense.” It said it had also faced hacking threats.

In Canada, the accusations reported in local media and based on leaked intelligence documents and unnamed sources included secret campaign donations and Chinese operatives working for Canadian candidates or lawmakers in an attempt to influence policy.

More recently, it emerged that Beijing sought to intimidate an opposition Canadian lawmaker and his relatives in Hong Kong over his criticisms of China.

Earlier this month, Ottawa expelled a Chinese diplomat implicated in that scheme.

Beijing, which has called the intimidation accusations "groundless," reacted by sending home a Canadian diplomat and warning Ottawa it was sabotaging relations with its second-largest trading partner.

'Real and growing threat'

Johnston in his interim report, after reviewing original source intelligence files and interviewing senior intelligence officials, rejected calls for a public inquiry to shed light on the accusations and bolster confidence in Canadian elections.

"A public review of classified intelligence simply cannot be done," he said.

Instead, he said he would hold hearings over the summer and invite testimony from targeted diaspora communities and various experts.

All three opposition party leaders were unmoved by Johnston's findings and demanded open scrutiny.

"We remain resolute that a public inquiry is needed to restore confidence in our electoral system," said Jagmeet Singh, leader of a small leftist faction that has propped up Trudeau's liberals.

Concerns about China interference in G7 democracies were included in the bloc's statement in Hiroshima in May during the meeting of the countries considered the biggest seven industrialised nations.

"We will never tolerate foreign interference," Trudeau said Tuesday.

In his preliminary findings, Johnston noted common foreign interference techniques included cyberattacks, online influence campaigns, disinformation and "exploitation of human relationships."

He also identified shortcomings in how intelligence is shared among officials, describing "significant and unacceptable gaps in the machinery of government."

Johnston said it is "a real and growing threat and more remains to be done promptly to strengthen our capacity to detect, deter, and counter foreign interference in elections."

Johnston is scheduled to release a final report in October.

Additional reporting by Aggrey Mutambo