Politics

Foreign interference cost Conservative Party up to 9 seats in 2021, O'Toole tells inquiry

Former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole told the Foreign Interference Commission inquiry Wednesday that he believes his party lost five to nine seats because of a foreign misinformation campaign aimed at Conservative candidates in B.C. and Ontario, and at his party more generally.

Former Conservative leader among several MPs who claim China has targeted them

Erin O'Toole appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 3, 2024.
Erin O'Toole appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole told the Foreign Interference Commission inquiry Wednesday that he believes his party lost five to nine seats because of a foreign misinformation campaign aimed at Conservative candidates in B.C. and Ontario, and at his party more generally.

O'Toole also told the commission he might have continued as leader after losing the 2021 federal election had it not been for Beijing's misinformation efforts targeting his party's campaign.

"The small number of seats would not have impacted the minority government that Canada has right now, but the difference of two, three, five seats may have allowed me more of a moral justification to remain as leader," he said.

O'Toole told the commission that winning two fewer seats than the party did in the 2019 election made it very difficult for him to make that case.

Speaking in Toronto on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed O'Toole's suggestion that foreign interference cost the Conservatives seats as something coming from "someone who lost an election … trying to look for reasons other than themselves."

Commission counsel cited policy promises in the 2021 Conservative platform explaining how it would approach China and asked O'Toole if those pledges might explain why his party lost those five to nine seats.

The platform promised to recognize the Uyghur genocide, ban imports manufactured with forced and enslaved Uyghur labour and ban Chinese mobile giant Huawei from Canada's 5G infrastructure.

O'Toole dismissed the suggestion, saying that "many of these positions were positions that we previously had" and were almost a "reassertion of our foreign policy from the Harper government," when those seats were won by the party. 

"In recent years there's been a ramping up of foreign interference operations and that's why I don't think some of those seats were turned because we had a more traditional, or a more aggressive, foreign policy posture with respect to China," O'Toole said. "I think a lot of people did not vote because they were intimidated."

WATCH: O'Toole says some candidates were undermined by Chinese foreign interference 

Former Conservative leader says some candidates were undermined by Chinese foreign interference

2 months ago
Duration 4:37
Speaking to reporters after his testimony at the inquiry looking into foreign meddling in Canadian elections, former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole says he believes some former Conservative candidates would be MPs now were it not for interference from the Chinese government.

Foreign interference report not shared with party: O'Toole

Commission counsel also asked O'Toole about a Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force assessment that was prepared a week before the 2021 federal election detailing possible foreign interference threats. 

That document said the Rapid Response Mechanism Canada (RRM Canada), which monitors foreign state-sponsored disinformation, had observed what might have been a Chinese Communist Party campaign to discourage people from voting Conservative.

"This was not raised to our attention," O'Toole said.

O'Toole was also asked about another RRM document dated around the same time that cited media outlets in Fujian province reporting a Conservative government in Canada would pursue "greater political cooperation with Taiwan."

"No, we were not informed of that," O'Toole said. "In fact we were raising instances of foreign interference that we witnessed and the SITE committee tended to downplay them. We were given the impression that there were no concerns about foreign interference."

Watch: Conservative Party was 'lulled into state of complacency' on foreign interference, says former leader: 

Conservative Party was 'lulled into state of complacency' on foreign interference, says former leader

2 months ago
Duration 12:04
Former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole says foreign interference cost his party up to 9 seats in the 2021 election. O'Toole joins Power & Politics after testifying before the Foreign Interference Commission inquiry.

The former leader said Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking campaign workers in B.C. noticed that social media platforms and chat groups in China were spreading disinformation about his party and candidates, and the party reported their concerns to SITE.

O'Toole said that the reports from the field that he remembers most clearly involved Kenny Chiu, then the Conservative MP for the B.C. riding of Steveston—Richmond East.

"The level and volume and tone of misinformation towards Mr. Chiu was horrendous," O'Toole said. "He was fearful for his own well being and that of his family and it was a personal attack of a racially motivated nature, suggesting he was a race traitor."

O'Toole said his party heard nothing back from SITE.

"The SITE process was not as complete, not as professional and not as transparent as it should have been when there were reports like this," he said.

Under cross-examination, O'Toole was asked if he personally flagged the information to SITE. He said he did not.

O'Toole said Walied Soliman, the Conservative campaign co-chair for the 2021 election and the designate to the task force, was responsible for doing that.

The former leader said he did not direct Soliman to relay the information and assumed he had done so, and did not ask him afterwards if the information had been communicated to the task force.

Chiu told the commission Wednesday that he'd hoped David Johnston, appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau as special rapporteur on foreign interference, would talk to him. He said Johnston never met with him.

Watch: 'I thought I would be protected by my country,' former MP tells foreign interference inquiry:

'I thought I would be protected by my country,' former MP tells foreign interference inquiry

2 months ago
Duration 4:03
Former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu told the public inquiry into foreign interference that he might not have run for office, if he'd known Canadian intelligence showing he was the target of Chinese government interference would not be shared with him.

"I thought I would be protected by my country and I was deeply troubled, disappointed that I was exposed and the government doesn't seem to care," Chiu said.

"Now that, through the commission, I've learned that they've known all about it, it's almost like I was drowning and they were watching and the best they could do by the way was let me know that I'm drowning. I don't need their notification, I need their help."

When commission counsel asked Chiu how he would have acted differently knowing what he knows now, he said, "I may not have run for office, because as an immigrant it's already very challenging to build a life here in Canada.

"To go into public service it's even more challenging," he added.

Party wanted an official warning, O'Toole says

"We wanted a caution, a public notice to voters to be wary of information that they were obtaining from social media, particularly foreign controlled, foreign language media," O'Toole said. He added he later learned the SITE taskforce felt the information did not meet the threshold for a public warning.

"At times I thought of making some sort of statement, but I was fearful of that being perceived, or opponents in the campaign using that as some sort of wedge in a narrative that we were being discriminatory" against Asian Canadians, he said.

O'Toole said he also feared that a public statement might suggest he was criticizing Canadian institutions or that he believed the election was rigged.

"I regret that I didn't make a statement," he said Wednesday.

Foreign Interference Committee continues

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

The commission heard from NDP MP Jenny Kwan and current Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong on Wednesday afternoon. Both believe China has targeted them for advocating for human rights.

Kwan said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told her that China targeted her during the 2019 election in ways she can't disclose, in reprisal for her advocacy for human rights in Hong Kong and for the Uyghur Muslim minority in China.

The Vancouver MP told the commission Wednesday that she noticed a shift in attitudes in the Chinese community in her riding as her advocacy increased.

She specifically mentioned instances of constituents telling her that they were afraid to be associated with voting for her. She also described being excluded from a Lunar New Year event in her riding in 2022, despite a number of elected officials from outside of her riding being invited.

A man in a black suit, white shirt and black tie sits at a table and speaks into a microphone.
Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills Michael Chong appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, Wednesday, April 3, 2024 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

During his own testimony, Chong discussed instances during the 2019 and 2021 elections that he suspects could have been related to foreign interference.

In 2019, he said, he received an email from what he believed was a "spoof" Chinese government account that suggested he had been banned from entering China and Hong Kong.

A second instance Chong cited occurred during a 2021 virtual all-candidates event for Puslinch, Ont., a small rural community of only a few thousand people in his riding. Chong said he was asked loaded questions by a Chinese man who suggested his party's policies were contributing to anti-Chinese racism in Canada.

"After the debate, we asked around if anybody had ever seen or heard of this individual and to this date no one has a clue who this person or individual is," he said, adding that Puslinch is a tightly knit community.

Ottawa expelled a Chinese diplomat last May after Canada's spy agency alleged Zhao Wei was involved in a plot to intimidate Chong's relatives in Hong Kong.

Chong said he wasn't made aware that he was a target until last year. He said that had he been notified prior to the previous two election campaigns, he would have gone on "high alert" during the campaigns.

"Had I known that in the previous election, I would have hit record on the Zoom all-candidates debate in Puslinch," he said.

Chiu, meanwhile, claims Chinese authorities worked against him in the 2021 federal election after he had proposed a foreign-agent registry. Special rapporteur David Johnston said it's clear Chiu irked Chinese diplomats and that there was online misinformation about such a registry during the election, but it's unclear Beijing was behind those postings.

China strongly denies all claims it has meddled in Canadian democracy.

The ongoing hearings are part of the inquiry's work examining possible foreign interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two general elections.

WATCH | Former Liberal MP denies knowledge of Chinese interference in campaign: 

Former Liberal MP denies knowledge of Chinese interference in campaign

2 months ago
Duration 2:09
Former Liberal MP Han Dong, who now sits as an Independent, testified before the federal inquiry into alleged Chinese government interference in Canadian elections that he had no knowledge of Chinese students using falsified documents to vote in his nomination.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his cabinet and various senior government officials are also 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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