A Public Inquiry Into Foreign Election Meddling Comes Up Against Secrecy


There were no dramatic revelations from the first week of hearings into possible foreign interference during the last two Canadian federal elections.

Instead, what the country got was a very Canadian discussion about how to balance the desire for public access with the need to keep intelligence secure in a government that defaults to secrecy.

Let’s pause to recall how the country got here.

Last year, The Globe and Mail and Global News reported that secret and top-secret intelligence showed that the government of China and its diplomats in Canada had meddled in the last two elections to make sure that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party took power. The newspaper published 17 articles in all, and its unnamed source is still being sought by the police. The source wrote a first-person account indicating that he or she was risking prison time because of frustration over the limited attention being given to Chinese state interference at the senior levels of Canada’s government.

[Read: Claims of Chinese Election Meddling Put Trudeau on Defensive]

The leaks do not provide any evidence that the Chinese officials successfully carried out their plans for meddling or that their efforts changed election outcomes. But they did raise troubling questions about the integrity of Canada’s democracy and ignited a political firestorm in the House of Commons.

[Read: He Won Election to Canada’s Parliament. Did China Help?]

[Read: Canadian Politicians Who Criticize China Become Its Targets]

[Read: Did China Help Vancouver’s Mayor Win Election?]

The opposition, particularly the Conservatives under Pierre Poilievre, swiftly demanded the public inquiry that began this week, after months of resistance from Mr. Trudeau. It’s the first inquiry into the topic that raises issues of how much access to classified intelligence the public can have.

There had previously been other investigations, some of which have been waylaid by similar issues.

First out was a report last February by a group of senior public servants who all had the highest security clearances and had been tasked during the last two elections to look for foreign interference. Their highly redacted report concluded: There was evidence that Russia, Iran and particularly China tried to interfere in the votes held in 2019 and 2021, but they were unsuccessful in “impacting” the outcomes.

Mr. Trudeau also appointed David Johnston, a former governor general, to look into election fiddling by foreign governments.

Using a closed process, not a public inquiry, Mr. Johnston put out a preliminary report. In it, he said that his broad review of secret intelligence, which he was not allowed to describe, suggested that The Globe and Mail and Global News had misconstrued much of the information they obtained through leaks, and he dismissed some of their specific stories as false.

While Mr. Johnston recommended against a public inquiry after concluding that it would be an impossible task with top-secret intelligence, he did promise to hold some public hearings.

That never happened. Mr. Johnston stepped down after the opposition parties passed a motion calling for his resignation because his longstanding connections with the Trudeau family created an “appearance of bias.”

The government also asked a special committee made up of senators and members of the House of Commons with top-secret security clearances to take a look into foreign interference. But it has yet to report its findings and almost immediately complained about its lack of access to relevant cabinet documents. That complaint was echoed by the independent agency that oversees Canada’s security and intelligence agencies, which is also conducting a still-unfinished look into election meddling.

After Mr. Johnston’s departure and repeated recommendations for a full public inquiry by a House of Commons committee, which held its own hearings into foreign meddling, Mr. Trudeau finally yielded.

But the problem — how to handle the top-secret intelligence in a public hearing — persists. And the week of discussion aimed at resolving that dilemma ended on a discouraging note for anyone hoping for a full public airing.

The first classified-intelligence documents that the commission asked the government to clear for public release, most of them from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, were turned over in their censored versions on Thursday.

“The result of the exercise is that the C.S.I.S. documents are redacted almost in their entirety,” the Department of Justice said in a letter. It added: “It is reasonable to assume that foreign officials are following the inquiry such that disclosure of sensitive information would become known to them. This will likely lead to an immediate loss of access to the intelligence that Canada has deemed to be of the highest priority.”

The conflict could delay the work of Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, a judge of the Quebec Court of Appeal, who was appointed to lead the inquiry but has not been given a generous amount of time for her complex task. Even with an extension, she must produce a preliminary report by May 3. Her final submission is due at the end of the year.

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  • Skating’s international governing body addressed a two-year-old controversy by stripping Russia of its victory in the team event at the Beijing Olympics, awarding the gold medal to the United States but denying Canada the bronze it had been expecting. Canada and Russia are both talking about appeals.

  • Two Canadians, including a member of the Hells Angels, along with an Iranian man have been charged with plotting to kill two Iranian refugees living in Maryland.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for two decades. Follow him on Bluesky: @ianausten.bsky.social

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