June 15th, 2024

Inquiry hears why officials didn’t alert public to possible threats in federal votes

By Stephanie Taylor and Dylan Roberston, The Canadian Press on April 8, 2024.

The public inquiry studying alleged meddling in Canada's most recent elections will hear from the prime minister's national security adviser today. Nathalie Drouin appears as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission, in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – The former Clerk of the Privy Council says senior government officials who monitored threats to Canada’s 2021 federal election did not observe incidents at either the national or riding level that hit the threshold for issuing a public alert.

Janice Charette testified Monday alongside other senior bureaucrats who sat on a panel tasked with assessing threats during the 2019 and 2021 elections.

The key questions the panel of five officials faced focused on their decisions not to issue any public warnings during those campaigns, despite evidence of a misinformation campaign directed at former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu and the party more broadly during the 2021 vote.

The inquiry itself was prompted by anonymous leaks around foreign interference allegations to the media.

The commission heard that officials who monitored threats during the 2021 vote were alerted to the fact misinformation had been circulating in private WeChat groups regarding Chiu and the Conservative Party of Canada.

Panel member Marta Morgan said the group tried to establish if the information was being circulated organically or through a state-sponsored actor.

Overall, the panel did not observe incidents that met the threshold for altering the public to possible threats, Charette said – a determination she noted was entirely up to the panel.

“Not (at) the riding level or at the national level,” she pointed out.

Fran├žois Daigle, who sat on the 2021 panel as the deputy minister of justice, said that for the panel to intervene it would need “reliable information” of something nefarious taking place, such as a proxy acting on a state’s behalf to spread falsehoods during an election.

That’s because freedom of expression is a protected Charter right and elections are a time of vigorous debate meant to sway voters.

“To say a mere possibility of a proxy acting isn’t enough,” Daigle said.

“We wouldn’t intervene where there’s evidence of free speech on public policy issues…. But we would intervene if we thoughtthat here was disinformation that was pushed forward by a foreign state or some domestic actor.”

Nathalie Drouin, who sat on both the 2019 and 2021 election panels and now serves as the prime minister’s national security adviser, also explained why officials interpreted the criteria for informing the public to be so high.

“There were some risks that any intervention by the panel can create more harm than good,” Drouin said.

“It had the potential to create confusion, and also to be seen as interfering in a democratic exercise.”

She added: “We want also to make sure that we were not being seen as taking a position – a partisan position – in any debate.”

Drouin outlined for the inquiry how the 2019 panel was alerted to a fake article being circulated by the Buffalo Chronicle about Trudeau, which she says Facebook took down in a “proactive” way as part of its commitment to defend the integrity of that election.

Monik Beauregard, a now-retired associate deputy minister of public safety in 2019, told the inquiry the intelligence the panel received was helpful but oftentimes incomplete.

Testifying in French, she said they often only received partial information, and that reports would come with caveats, including whether the intelligence came from a reliable source or a new person.

Beauregard told the inquiry the panel had to assess the credibility and reliability of the pieces of intelligence they received. It is rare, she said, to act on a single report without further corroboration.

Going into the 2019 vote, the inquiry heard Canada was alert to possible election interference threats coming from countries such as China, India, Russia and Pakistan.

The senior civil servants from the panel testified on Monday that they were aware of students being bused to a controversial Liberal party nomination race in 2019 in Toronto, but details surrounding that report were uncorroborated.

The panel deliberated about how much they were able to look into a nomination campaign, given that political parties set most of the rules, except for financing which is federally regulated.

Nomination races usually occur outside of election periods, Drouin noted.

She said the panel reached out to CSIS and other agencies asking them to provide any emerging intelligence about the nomination race.

The federal elections commissioner and the Liberals were also informed about the intelligence, she added – in part because the commissioner’s mandate includes probing “potential irregularities when it comes to funding.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2024.

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