‘O’Toole is ‘on par’ with Trump’: Insiders say Conservatives debated going public with election misinformation warnings in 2021
OTTAWA—Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole considered going public in the middle of the 2021 federal election with warnings of potential foreign interference in the campaign, the Star has learned.
The party began compiling examples of what they were seeing as early as two weeks into that campaign, multiple party sources told the Star, but rather than risk political backlash by going public, decided to send it to the security task force set up by the government to watch for election meddling.
Now, new revelations that CSIS had a robust dossier on actions taken by Chinese-state actors before and during the 2021 campaign is fuelling demands from the Conservatives that the federal government act urgently to address the issue — beginning with acknowledging publicly what actually happened.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has deflected questions about specifically how much he knew and when about potential Chinese state interference in recent elections, saying as recently as Friday that Canadians can trust the outcome of the vote was not affected.
Multiple Conservative sources involved in the 2021 campaign, who spoke confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, told the Star on Tuesday they don’t think the overall outcome that year was impacted either.
But MPs did stress there is the looming question of what happens the next time Canadians go to the polls.
“If we don’t get this right, this problem — which seems to be growing and getting worse as it goes along — will only continue to get worse,” said Conservative MP Blaine Calkins during a House of Commons committee Tuesday.
“This is very alarming.”
Opposition MPs on the procedure and house affairs committee want a current study on foreign election interference expanded to include more details about the 2021 federal election, after a report in the Globe and Mail on Friday detailing how China worked in the last federal election to defeat Conservative politicians.
Citing classified records from Canada’s spy agency, the newspaper also reported that China was trying to help ensure the Liberals were re-elected with a minority government.
Internal Conservative party memos, obtained by the Star, contain examples from 2021 of Chinese-language materials spreading explicit misinformation about O’Toole and the party.
Some of the information came from channels on Chinese-language messaging apps or in state-sponsored media reports.
Among the allegations were that if O’Toole formed government, he’d ban the popular social messaging app WeChat, and that his hawkish stance on the Chinese government would lead to an increase in anti-Asian racism in Canada, accusing him of mirroring then-U.S. president Donald Trump who referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.”
“O’Toole is like former US President Trump 2.0, completely inheriting his mantle,” reads one posting included in the memo.
“In fact, there are already signs that O’Toole is ‘on par’ with Trump.”
The internal party document obtained by the Star shows the party identified 13 ridings where they thought there was the potential for votes to be swayed due to misinformation or disinformation campaigns — four in the Greater Vancouver area, and nine in the Toronto area.
The chair of the Conservatives’ 2021 campaign said Friday a conscious decision was made to work through the Security and Intelligence Threats To Elections task force and other security channels when the party became aware on its own of potential threats.
“Our concerns were never taken seriously,” Walied Soliman wrote on Twitter.
“We were met with shrugged shoulders and complete ambivalence. It was truly unreal.”
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Soliman declined requests for an interview.
The Chinese consulates in both Vancouver and Toronto have denied any involvement, calling the allegations “absolutely groundless and fictitious.”
Conservative party officials also flagged what seemed like bots completing party surveys, due to certain patterns they saw in written responses, and when the time came to review mail-in ballot requests, they noted high requests in two specific B.C. ridings with high Chinese populations — Richmond Centre and Steveston Richmond East.
When they dug deeper, they found approximately 1,500 people who hadn’t voted in the 2019 election had requested a mail-in ballot.
“These could easily be new citizens casting their first ballot, but it could also be an easy way for an outside actor to find ballots that wouldn’t be used,” the memo said.
“These ballots could either be requested on behalf of the residents without their knowledge, or done with specific instruction (intimidation) by a motivated actor.”
The memo noted finite party resources meant the issue was never looked into thoroughly.
The memo concluded, however, that at no time did party officials think the Liberals themselves had anything to do with it.
“It’s our understanding that the federal Liberals were not expected to do as well as they did with the Chinese community, and that they did not co-ordinate this campaign directly,” it said.
Under a federal protocol, there would be a public announcement if a panel of senior bureaucrats determined that an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election.
There was no such announcement in 2021 or concerning the 2019 election.
In response to the Globe and Mail’s report Friday, Trudeau said his government has long acknowledged China is trying to interfere in Canadian democracy.
“This is not a new phenomenon. This is something that countries around the world have been grappling with for a long time and Canada is no exception,” he said.
He added: “Canada has some of the best and most robust elections in the world and all Canadians can have total confidence that the outcomes of the 2019 and the 2021 elections were determined by Canadians and Canadians alone at the voting booth.”
But current Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has criticized that response, arguing the reason Trudeau is sloughing off the issue is because the interference has benefited his party.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper told the Commons’ committee Tuesday that what’s happening is an “all-out assault” on Canadian democracy and demands further study.
“This should alarm every Canadian.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
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