VANCOUVER—Canada’s spy agency has warned some municipalities in British Columbia to be wary of foreign interference in local elections this fall.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart says the Canadian Security Intelligence Service met with him recently, in what he was told was an unprecedented step, to go over concerns the agency has about the possibility foreign governments could try to affect the outcome of local elections.
“CSIS brought in a fairly high-ranking official as well as their China expert to give me a two-hour briefing on foreign interference in domestic politics,” Stewart told the Star.
“They said they didn’t normally reach out to locally elected officials but felt it was necessary in this case.”
A source with the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam said officials there had a similar briefing. Another suburb, Richmond, confirmed a meeting with CSIS members but would not disclose the subject.
Other municipalities said they did not have a briefing or did not respond to the Star’s query.
CSIS refused to comment on the meetings.
Stewart said his briefing included ways foreign interference might take place in local elections but didn’t go into specific details. CSIS left him with a handbook and sheet on what he should be aware of.
“If there was any interference, I’d be afraid that it could have quite a substantive impact on our local elections here,” he said.
Foreign interference in Canada’s elections have been a concern particularly since last year’s federal election.
Some Conservative MPs reported misinformation campaigns against them on Chinese social media sites aimed at dissuading Chinese-language voters from supporting them, which some say may have contributed to their election losses.
This week a story from The Canadian Press based on an access-to-information request showed Rapid Response Mechanism Canada, which tracks foreign interference, observed Chinese Community Party state media accounts on Chinese-language social media pushing a narrative that the Conservatives would severe ties with Beijing if elected.
The document The Canadian Press received was prepared a week before Canadians voted in September. The story also said Beijing may have tried to dissuade Canadians from voting.
Conservative Foreign Affairs critic Michael Chong, who co-wrote a book on government with Stewart, said those revelations mean there are now four different sources raising concerns about interference in Canadian elections by Beijing, including reports from researchers at the Atlantic Council and McGill University.
“Then the question becomes whether or not this was the reason why several Conservative candidates lost the election,” Chong said. “That’s a difficult thing to measure, but I think it’s very safe to say that this disinformation was a factor in the loss of several Conservative candidates.”
The leader of the Conservatives last election, Erin O’Toole, said on a recent podcast he believes the party lost as many as nine seats to such interference from China last year.
One of those candidates was former Richmond-area MP, Kenny Chiu, who dealt with a disinformation campaign against him on Chinese-language social media during the 2021 election. It falsely accused Chiu, who was behind an attempt to start a foreign agents registry, of wanting to start a mandatory registry for all Chinese Canadians.
Chong commended CSIS for briefing elected officials on the foreign interference threat and said he’s aware the agency has also spoken to MPs about it.
He said the federal government needs to step up its measures to combat it or it could embolden Beijing in future elections.
Interference in elections can have a number of goals. One is to assist the election of politicians who may be warm to a foreign government’s agenda.
Though local elections don’t enjoy the same turnout or attention higher levels of government do, they can be fertile ground for interference, says Akshay Singh, an international affairs and security expert and non-resident research fellow at the Council on International Policy.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter which level of government an official is at for them to be able to try to grow influence with them,” Singh said. “With China I would even say in some cases it might actually be more useful for them to grow influence at a non-federal level.”
Singh stressed such attempts of foreign governments trying to influence elections are not limited to China. He said the staff of politicians are also potential targets.
Municipal governments have more direct control over local policy, he said; Seniors can make local decisions considered friendly to Beijing. They can also pressure governments above them to make decisions the CCP would like.
Initiatives such as China’s United Front Work Department, tasked with furthering the CCP’s agenda at home and abroad, are part of the effort.
“They want to build a community of shared voices across levels so that they can have more people than not provide things that support the CCP’s interests,” Singh said.
For example, he said, if there’s a trade between national governments, local politician disputes can be used to leverage their concerns to federal counterparts.
In Vancouver on Thursday night, Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie attended a gala at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver with Chinese officials that was held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to mainland China. Since then the Beijing-backed local government has trampled democracy and human rights in the city and, experts argue, breached the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration meant to promise Hong Kong’s freedoms for 50 years.
The City of Richmond said the event was one of many events that “reflect the culture and diversity of Richmond” that the mayor and council attend.
Stewart, meanwhile, said during his meeting with CSIS he outlined ongoing “tensions” with Chinese officials posted in Vancouver.
After the Chinese government put sanctions on Canadian officials, including Chong, for speaking out about human rights abuses in China, Stewart said he cut off contact with China’s consul general in Vancouver. .
“I publicly issued a statement saying I would no longer meet or communicate with Chinese officials,” he said. “That, I don’t think was taken in very good light.”
Municipal elections in BC are set for Oct. 15.
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