Politics

2021 Conservative platform pledges to help Uyghurs made party target of China, inquiry hears

Chinese Communist Party officials allegedly increased their efforts to target the Conservative Party with foreign interference activities after it adopted a number of policies in its 2021 election platform crafted to punish the regime in Beijing for its treatment of Uyghurs, the Foreign Interference Commission heard Wednesday. 

Members of diaspora communities are testifying during federal inquiry hearings into foreign interference

Four people sit at a conference table
Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims representative Hamed Esmaeilion, left, Falun Dafa Association of Canada's Grace Dai Wollensak and Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project's Mehmet Tohti listen to Russian Canadian Democratic Alliance's Yuriy Novodvorskiy, right, at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference on Wednesday, in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Chinese Communist Party officials allegedly increased their efforts to target the Conservative Party with foreign interference activities after it adopted a number of policies in its 2021 election platform crafted to punish the Beijing government for its treatment of Uyghurs, the Foreign Interference Commission heard Wednesday. 

"The Chinese government went mad about it," Mehmet Tohti, the representative of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, told the commission. "They increased their campaign against the Conservative Party."

Tohti said his organization made a number of policy requests of the parties running in the 2021 federal election and included those requests in a pamphlet it distributed to voters so they could ask candidates on the doorstep if they supported the moves. 

The policies that ended up in the Conservative platform included a pledge that a Conservative government would officially recognize the Uyghur genocide and encourage allies to do the same, and a promise to ban imports manufactured with forced and enslaved Uyghur labour. 

The platform also included the request to ban mobile giant Huawei from Canada's 5G mobile infrastructure and investigate the "company's role in providing surveillance capabilities that have been used against the Uyghur people and other persecuted minorities in China." 

"I believe the Chinese government was not happy about the Conservative Party, about the number of our policy recommendations in their election platform," Tohti said.

A woman in a pink blazer and glasses poses thoughtfully, while seated in front of a microphone.
Justice Marie-Josée Hogue is presiding over commission hearings looking into foreign meddling allegations and how the Canadian government responded to them. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Members of diaspora communities testified today as a federal inquiry began two weeks of hearings into foreign meddling allegations and how the Canadian government responded to them.

The hearings focused on possible interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two federal elections.

The commission of inquiry, led by Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue, expects to hear evidence from more than 40 people, including community members, political party representatives and federal election officials.

Iran's special interest in Canada

Hamed Esmaeilion, representative of the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, told the commission that the regime in Iran has "a special interest in Canada" and has made efforts "on many levels" to further its agenda here. 

Esmaeilion said those efforts can fit into two broad categories. The first is to interfere in Canadian political affairs, and the second is to monitor and survey Iranian community members in Canada attempting to promote democracy in Iran. 

He said Iran uses "its operatives to intimidate, harass, sometimes even threaten community members with the intent of blocking any dissent or organized efforts to expose the corruption of the regime in the international arena." 

He said the regime in Iran has worked to smear democracy-minded Iranians seeking elected office in Canada, while supporting others known to be sympathetic to the regime.

"There are examples of organized support for those who are known to be aligned to the Islamic regime in Iran," he alleged. 

He also said that the regime in Iran has a "stranglehold" on cultural and sporting organizations in the country and uses them to conduct influence activities abroad.

"Every sport team, most especially soccer teams, are accompanied by a multitude of those operatives who not only seek to direct and monitor the athletes, but" who travel with teams in the guise of sporting officials, he said. 

WATCH | Foreign-born Canadians say they're harassed, intimidated by foreign proxies: 

Foreign interference victims give emotional testimony at federal inquiry

2 months ago
Duration 2:03
Representatives of different diaspora communities in Canada testified before a federal commission of inquiry on foreign interference. They say they've faced harassment and intimidation from their home countries on Canadian soil, affecting both them and their families abroad.

"The entourage of a given soccer team usually reaches over 50 individuals in number with nearly one-third of those individuals having no connections with the given sporting events."

Esmaeilion said that when Canadians with family in Iran are identified by the regime, the family members back in Iran are targeted with harassment and threats and have even had their passports confiscated so they cannot leave the country. 

Targeting family members back home

Yuriy Novodvorskiy, of the Russian Canadian Democratic Alliance, told the commission that the harassment and targeting of relatives in Russia was also common practice, despite those family members in Russia being unconnected with protest activities in Canada.

"Another form of pressure we have seen is the refusal of consular services," Novodvorskiy said. "This is a major concern of people in the Russian Canadian community because … if you are here on a work visa, student visa … at some point Canada will likely ask you for some documents from Russia."

Novodvorskiy said that the refusal of consular services puts people under the threat of possible deportation back to Russia.  

Tohti said that China also targets family members of Uyghur Canadians by isolating family in China using alleged Communist Party of China "police stations" in Canada to monitor dissidents.

Uyghur Canadians identified by the alleged police stations cannot then share photos or texts, or reach out in any way to family members in China because their family in that country have been cut off from communicating with the outside world, he said.  

Tohti said that combined with the destruction of Uyghur cemeteries and shrines, the result is not only isolation from family, but from Uyghur history and culture.

Falun Dafa Association of Canada's Grace Dai Wollensak said that aside from the denial of consular services from her government, Chinese Canadians in her community have had their car tires slashed and windows broken in an attempt to intimidate them. 

National Congress of the Communist Party of China
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the opening ceremony of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in October 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Winnie Ng, representative of the Chinese Canadian Concern Group, questioned the motivations behind China sponsoring parliamentarians to travel to the country for cultural exchanges.

"What kind of exchange program would that be, coming from an autocracy system, coming from a system where the National People's Congress only meets 10 days a year and they have never voted anything down?" Ng said. 

"These are influences at the very top level of our Canadian democratic institutions."

Ng urged the commission to expand its probe to look past the last two elections and look at the "long arm of China" and its influence in Canada over the past few decades.  

Indian agents based in consulates

Jaskaran Sandhu, representative of the Sikh Coalition, said his community in Canada contains about one million people, the largest Sikh population outside of Punjab. 

Sandhu said Indian consulates in Canada are made up government agents and intelligence officers who have been stationed in Canada "whose sole purpose is to monitor and target the Sikh community."

"If a Sikh speaks about a Sikh issue that is important to the Sikh community, that is not controversial within the Sikh community … we risk having our visas denied to visit our religious homes in Punjab," Sandhu said. 

He also said his community has been the target of disinformation campaigns at an increasing rate. 

"India is a hub for global disinformation," he said. "That disinformation in the case of Canada maligns the Sikh community, undermines the Sikh community."

Closed hearings

At the opening of Wednesday's session, Hogue said that six days of in-camera hearings were recently held after Attorney General Arif Virani asked for the hearings to exclude the media and the public because the evidence given would be detrimental to national security. 

Hogue said the commission is preparing summaries of the testimony heard and will release them during the course of the current hearing schedule. 

Hogue said that when the in-camera hearings revealed information that would help the public without jeopardizing national security, she asked council for the commission to ensure it is re-introduced publicly. 

"The commission has access to a large number of classified documents in their entirety, meaning without the redactions needed to protect national security," she said. 

"Confidential imperatives have not prevented us from doing the work we have been tasked to do, but they do pose real difficulties as I endeavour to keep the process transparent and open — the commission must walk a very fine line in its work."

Hogue said the commission is making every effort to ensure the public has access to as much information as possible. 

Prime minister to testify

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his cabinet and various senior government officials are also slated to appear at the hearings, which run from today through 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 ability of the government to detect, deter and counter foreign interference, with a final report 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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