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A woman in a pale blue jacket and wearing glasses appears next to a banner that read Foreign Interference Commission.
Commissioner Justice Marie-Josée Hogue makes her way to the stage to deliver remarks on the interim report of the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions on May 3, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

New commission sheds light on how diaspora communities are impacted by foreign interference

The federal government established the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, led by Justice Marie-Josée Hogue, in September 2023.

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Toronto news outlet The Green Line and The Conversation Canada collaborated on this article, part of The Green Line’s ongoing Diasporic Conversations series. For more information about The Green Line, scroll to the end of this article.

In Canada, foreign interference is defined as “harmful activities undertaken by foreign states or their proxies that are clandestine, deceptive, or involve a threat to any person to advance the strategic objectives of those states to the detriment of Canada’s national interests.”

These threats and activities of state or non-state entities foster polarization, distrust and erode faith in democratic systems.

Hogue’s initial report found that foreign interference occurred in both of the last two federal elections — held in 2019 and 2021 — and is expected to continue.

In contrast to former Governor-General David Johnston’s separate report on foreign interference, the commission made public the bulk of security and intelligence reports during the first stage of the hearings. Most of these documents were declassified and unredacted.

China is the biggest culprit

Among the few countries that the commission examined, the People’s Republic of China was found to be “the foremost perpetrator” of foreign interference. Its sophisticated, pervasive and persistent activities target government officials, electoral candidates, political organizations and diaspora communities.

With billions of dollars poured into its global operation, China expends significantly more resources on foreign interference-related activities than any other country.

The commission’s Stage 1 hearings featured a panel of diaspora community representatives who have been affected by foreign interference and transnational repression. Together with witness statements from members of Parliament and an ex-MP who dealt with foreign interference, a diaspora perspective emerged from this initial phase of the commission’s hearings.

In her report, Hogue noted some diaspora communities are disproportionately affected by foreign interference. Targeted by China in its transnational repression efforts, five groups — dubbed the “Five Poisons” by Chinese authorities — particularly bear the brunt: Falun Gong adherents, Uyghurs, Tibetans, supporters of Taiwan and those advocating for democracy in mainland China and Hong Kong.

It was chilling to hear Mehmet Tohti from the Uyghur community tell the commission about a threatening phone call from Chinese state police announcing the death of his mother and two sisters in his homeland. Grace Dai Wollensak from the Falun Gong community broke into tears when she recounted 25 years of foreign interference and transnational repression in Canada.

Two men with a woman sitting between them at a witness table with microphones and name plates in front of them and a Canadian flag to their right.
Diaspora community members Grace Dai Wollensak and Mehmet Tohti (right) listen to Iranian-Canadian activist Hamed Esmaeilion (left) speak at the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in March 2024 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Chinese reach

Hogue’s report validated the Chinese diaspora group’s lived experiences and their observations about China’s power and motivation to silence dissidents, amplify Chinese Communist Party narratives, control public opinion and sow discord in diaspora communities.

Through its United Front Work Department, an entity under President Xi Jinping’s direct command aimed at shaping international discourse and orchestrating transnational repression, China manipulates democratic institutions to serve Communist Party interests by using rewards and punishments.

Via friendly community organizations or trusted contacts working on behalf of China, the United Front Work Department co-ordinates its foreign interference activities via Chinese embassies or consulates to target activists, dissidents and politicians.

The commission heard that Chinese diaspora members face frightening overt and covert tactics from Chinese consulates, dissuading them from full participation in Canadian public life if they don’t align with China’s interests.

While Hogue determined that foreign interference didn’t determine which party formed a government in either 2019 and 2021, results in certain ridings may have been impacted. For instance, misinformation and disinformation campaigns targeted former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole and Kenny Chiu, a former MP from British Columbia, due to their criticisms of China’s human rights record.

Hogue recognized that foreign interference in the last two elections has tarnished Canada’s electoral ecosystem, compromising some voters’ rights to make independent choices. That’s a detriment to democracy.

A bald man stands talking to a group of reporters in a brightly lit hallway.
Erin O'Toole speaks to reporters after appearing as a witness at the Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on April 3, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Lacking protection

From a diaspora perspective, protection from foreign interference and transnational repression is of utmost importance.

As revealed in Hogue’s initial report, there were obvious communication gaps among related government departments and agencies during both election periods. There was also a lack of co-ordinated effort and attention to specific warnings about foreign interference that were provided by security and intelligence agencies like CSIS before and during both election campaigns. Diaspora communities were left unprotected because there were no warnings.

Diaspora communities have been failed by the government’s efforts to address foreign interference. The government and political parties have seemingly only been concerned about the political implications and consequences, and not the harm caused to diaspora communities.

Ample intelligence reports on foreign threat activities have reached monitoring bodies like the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections SITE Task Force and the panel of five senior public servants tasked with monitoring foreign interference and issuing public warnings if they felt there was a threat to the integrity of the vote. The Prime Minister’s Office was notified about these reports.

But the commission heard no incidents were found to have warranted a public statement.

This is likely because protocols on what does warrant a public statement do not reflect the realities of diaspora communities. There was also a probable under-reporting of cases and evidence because diaspora community members lack access to public information, like tip lines, because they’re only available in English and French.

Two men speak; one gestures and looks annoyed.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the closing session of a G20 Leaders Summit in Bali, Indonesia in November 2022. Jinping reportedly chastised Trudeau over media leaks about their foreign interference conversations at the event. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Raising awareness

Despite the fact that the commission’s mandate in Stage 1 was confined to the last two general elections, there may now be greater public awareness of the damage foreign interference has done to Canada’s democratic system.

The commission heard about several disturbing incidents, including the transfer of $250,000 for suspected foreign interference-related purposes, the Chinese consulate’s involvement in transporting international students to a nomination contest in the Toronto riding of Don Valley North and the ostracization of vocal MPs perceived as threats by China. But they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

Hogue’s initial report did not mention the struggles of diaspora communities because the members of those communities weren’t sworn in as witnesses — they appeared at the Stage 1 hearings to raise awareness and provide context. They will likely appear as witnesses in the next phase of hearings, and their lived experiences should augment the intelligence reports and widen the scope of understanding about the threats and activities of state entities and their proxies in Canada.

Hogue has warned that foreign interference will not stop and indeed may become more intense in the future. The perspectives of those from diaspora communities on how to stop foreign interference can help strengthen Canadian democracy.

The Green Line is an award-winning, hyperlocal news outlet that investigates the way Torontonians live to help young and other underserved citizens survive and thrive in a rapidly changing city. Its ongoing series, Diasporic Conversations, is exploring why people living in a uniquely multicultural and pluralistic city like Toronto feel the impact of geopolitical conflicts much more intensely than those in other cities.

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