Politics

Han Dong tells foreign interference inquiry he tried to help Spavor and Kovrig, wants to be a Liberal again

Independent MP Han Dong told the Foreign Interference Commission Tuesday that he only ever advocated for the well-being of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and would like to return to the Liberal Party.

Security briefings on foreign interference for 2021 election provided no help, party officials say

Two men in suits walk side by side down a hallway.
Han Dong, left, is joined by lawyer Mark Polley as he arrives to appear as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

Independent MP Han Dong told the Foreign Interference Commission Tuesday that he only ever advocated for the well-being of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and would like to return to the Liberal Party.

Last year, the Don Valley North MP announced he would sit as an Independent after Global News published a report alleging he advised a senior Chinese diplomat in February 2021 that Beijing should hold off on freeing Kovrig and Spavor. 

"Whenever I talk about the two Michaels I try to show that early release of the two Michaels is good for the relationship between the two countries, therefore it's something that the Chinese-Canadian community would like to see," Dong told the commission.

Kovrig and Spavor were detained in China on Dec. 10, 2018, nine days after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, was arrested while changing planes in Vancouver.

Former special rapporteur on foreign interference David Johnston investigated the claim that Dong meddled in efforts to free the two men and concluded in a report released in May that the allegation was false.

Dong filed a $15 million defamation lawsuit in April 2023 against Global News and its parent company Corus Entertainment. Dong said Tuesday that the lawsuit is in the discovery stage. He also said he has no news about his chances of returning to the Liberal fold.

Johnston did conclude that there were "irregularities" observed with Dong's nomination for the federal Liberals in 2019 and cited what he called a "well-grounded suspicion that the irregularities were tied to the People's Republic of China (PRC) consulate in Toronto, with whom Mr. Dong maintains relationships."

"In reviewing the intelligence, I did not find evidence that Mr. Dong was aware of the irregularities or the PRC Consulate's potential involvement in his nomination," the report said.

Dong told the commission Tuesday that meeting with diplomats is part of his job as an MP with a large Chinese diaspora. He said he also meets regularly with diplomats from Ukraine, Armenia and Sri Lanka. 

Intelligence summary of intercepted 'Two Michaels' call released

As Dong testified on Tuesday, a document summarizing intelligence from CSIS and other security agencies related to his call with PRC officials regarding Kovrig and Spavor was made public at the inquiry.

The unclassified summary says Dong "expressed the view that even if the PRC released the 'Two Michaels' at that moment, opposition parties would view the PRC's action as an affirmation of the effectiveness of a hardline Canadian approach to the PRC."

The summary also said Dong stated that the Canadian public believed China's approach to Kovrig and Spavor was wrong and lacking legal justification. It also said he noted that a Canadian hardline approach to the PRC would be detrimental to Sino-Canadian relations.

The summary said Dong's reference to the two Michaels' detention was in the context of his noting the difficulty of getting people to change perspectives once they solidified particular positions.

Asked about the phone call at the inquiry on Tuesday, Dong said he did not recall the conversation.

The summary document said it should be considered in light of several limitations, including that it may be incomplete, does not indicate when the information was collected, may contain single-sourced information and may contain information of "unknown and varying degrees of reliability."

Campaign irregularities

On Tuesday, the commission council asked Dong about intelligence reports that indicated buses were used to bring international students to Dong's 2019 nomination vote to support him.

Dong said that while he visited a student residence in his riding in the summer of 2019 to campaign the support of students at NOIC Academy — formerly New Oriental International College — his campaign did not provide the bus. He said he understood it was arranged and paid for by the school.

Dong said that while the school has now moved to Markham, Ont., the residence was located in his riding when he spoke to the students and he did not travel outside his riding to campaign during the nomination.

Ted Lojko, Dong's campaign director in 2019, later told the commission that many students at the school may have had dual Canadian-Chinese citizenship but they would have had to prove they were permanent residents in order to vote. 

WATCH: Dong says he has no 'documents' on buses at heart of foreign interference claim: 

Former Liberal MP Han Dong says he has no 'documents' on buses at heart of foreign interference claim

20 days ago
Duration 6:48
Han Dong, currently an Independent MP, answered questions about international students being bused in to vote in his Toronto-area riding in response to claims about Chinese government interference in Canadian elections.

When Dong was interviewed by the commission council in February, he said that his campaign organized just one bus to bring seniors who were party members to the nomination vote. He later told the commission two buses were hired for that purpose and receipts for the bus rentals had been submitted to Elections Canada. 

Dong said his wife organized the rental of the two coaches for nomination day and they were used to pick up voters in seniors homes where Dong had canvassed for votes.

Under cross examination by the Conservative Party's counsel, Dong was asked why he abstained from voting on a Conservative motion in February 2021 that condemned China for carrying out a campaign of genocide against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.

"Because I haven't seen documents to convince me that yes, there is a genocide, or no, there isn't a genocide. So I think the fair thing for me to do was to abstain," he said.

The House of Commons vote saw 266 MPs out of 338 voting in favour of the motion, with only two abstentions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and almost the entire cabinet were absent for the vote.

Security briefings 'probably not a good use of resources'

Meanwhile, three party officials — Walied Soliman, Conservative campaign co-chair for the 2021 election; Azam Ishmael, who led the Liberals' 2021 campaign; and NDP national director Anne McGrath — told the commission that while they received foreign interference briefings from security and intelligence agencies before and during the 2021 federal election, the information they received was rudimentary and unhelpful.

Soliman said he had to go through an extensive security clearance process in order to represent his party at the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force briefings. He said they failed to deliver anything new.

"My overall sense was that I really didn't learn anything in the briefings that I didn't regularly read in the New York Times or the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star," he said.

"Listening to briefings on things that I think … were probably not actionable and … entirely known to us was not a good use of time and probably not a good use of resources."

Ishmael said the 2021 SITE briefings were an "interesting experience" but were "a bit disappointing" because they didn't offer recommendations.

McGrath said she was struck by how many high-level security officials attended the briefing to only deliver information that was generic and not actionable.

A man and a woman sit at a table and speak into microphones
Azam Ishmael, left, and Anne McGrath appear as witnesses at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

"Questions were asked," she said. "But the answers … didn't give you any information that would be helpful or any resources that would be helpful to deal with questions, such as if there was foreign interference in this aspect of the election campaign, how would we know it? And what would we do about it?"

The commission's counsel introduced a document from the SITE Task Force detailing a briefing that was delivered in 2021 that outlined lessons learned from the 2019 federal election. 

Party representatives challenge SITE notes

The briefing note said that the SITE Task Force saw no evidence foreign countries were targeting Elections Canada or the electoral system. It also said that there was no evidence of foreign countries directly interfering in "the digital information ecosystems" around the 2019 election.

The document did say that while it observed "human actors" from China, India and Pakistan engaged in foreign interference activities targeting certain ridings and candidates, those actions did not meet the threshold to initiate criminal investigations.

All three campaign leaders said they had never seen that document and did not recall receiving any specific information about ridings and candidates being targeted by those countries in the 2019 election.

Soliman and Ishmael said that going into the 2021 election, the possibility of foreign interference was low on their radar because they had not been told of any significant foreign interference activities at the time of the 2019 federal election. 

The 2021 Conservative platform and China

"If there was any sense that there was going to be any activity by the People's Republic of China against Parliament and certain MPs and interference in specific ridings, it would have been useful to know that," McGrath said.

"It would have been useful to know which ridings, what type of interference and what we should do about it."

The commission's counsel cited another document from the SITE Task Force describing briefings to political parties that explained how China was picking up on the Conservative Party's platform and its possible impact on Canada/China relations.

Soliman said he could not recall receiving any briefing from the task force during the 2021 election that suggested the Conservative platform was being singled out by China. Ishmael and McGrath also said they could not recall a SITE briefing that presented those details.

In 2021, the Conservative platform pledged to recognize the Uyghur genocide and encourage allies to do the same, promised to ban imports manufactured with forced and enslaved Uyghur labour and proposed to ban mobile giant Huawei from Canada's 5G mobile infrastructure.

The platform also promised that if the Conservatives formed government, Ottawa would investigate Huawei's "role in providing surveillance capabilities that have been used against the Uyghur people and other persecuted minorities in China."

'Our concerns were never taken seriously'

Soliman was the Conservative representative on the SITE Task Force during the 2021 race and has said the party was never notified of any threats to the electoral process.

"Our party was seeing clear signs of tampering in ridings with substantial Chinese diasporas," he wrote on social media in February 2023. "Our concerns were never taken seriously."

Former national security adviser Jody Thomas testified that the government provided a response to Soliman's concerns, and nothing was found to suggest that "the ridings that he was concerned about were affected by attempts at foreign interference."

The Foreign Interference Commission inquiry, led by Quebec judge Marie-Josee Hogue, expects to hear testimony from more than 40 people, including community members, political party representatives and federal election officials.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his cabinet and various senior government officials are slated to appear at the hearings, which are set to conclude April 10.

An initial report of findings from the commission is due May 3.

The inquiry will then shift to broader policy issues, looking at the government's ability to detect, deter and counter foreign interference. A final report is expected by the end of the year.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Zimonjic

Senior writer

Peter Zimonjic is a senior writer for CBC News. He has worked as a reporter and columnist in London, England, for the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph and in Canada for Sun Media and the Ottawa Citizen. He is the author of Into The Darkness: An Account of 7/7, published by Random House.

With files from The Canadian Press

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