‘O’Toole is ‘on par’ with Trump’: Experts say Conservatives debated making election misinformation warnings public in 2021

OTTAWA—Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole considered going public in the midst of the 2021 federal election with warnings about possible foreign interference in the campaign, the Star has learned.

The party began collecting examples of what they were seeing as early as two weeks into that campaign, various party sources told the Star, but rather than risk a political backlash by going public, it decided to send it to the task force of security established by the government. to monitor electoral meddling.

Now new revelations that CSIS had a strong record on actions taken by Chinese state actors leading up to and during the 2021 campaign are fueling demands by conservatives that the federal government act urgently to address the problem, starting with publicly acknowledging what really happened.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has deflected questions about how much specifically he knew and when about possible Chinese state interference in recent elections, saying on Friday that Canadians can be confident the outcome of the vote was not affected.

Multiple Conservative sources involved in the 2021 campaign, who spoke confidentially to discuss internal deliberations, told the Star on Tuesday they also don’t think the overall result for that year was affected.

But MPs stressed that there is the looming question of what will happen 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 on, will only continue to get worse,” Conservative MP Blaine Calkins said during a House of Commons committee on Tuesday.

“This is very alarming.”

Opposition MPs in the chamber’s procedures and affairs committee want a current study into foreign election interference to be expanded to include more details about the 2021 federal election, following a report in the Globe and Mail on Friday that details how China worked in the last federal elections to defeat the conservatives. 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 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 from state-sponsored media reports.

Among the accusations were that if O’Toole formed a government, he would ban the popular social messaging app WeChat and that his aggressive stance on the Chinese government would lead to a rise in anti-Asian racism in Canada, accusing him of mirroring then-United States president United States, Donald Trump, who referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”.

“O’Toole is like former US President Trump 2.0, he fully inherits his mantle,” read a post included in the memo.

“Indeed, there are already signs that O’Toole is ‘on par’ with Trump.”

The internal party document obtained by Star shows that the party identified 13 constituencies where they thought there was a potential for votes to be diverted due to disinformation campaigns or misinformation: four in the Vancouver metropolitan area and nine in the Greater Vancouver area. from Toronto.

The Conservatives’ 2021 campaign chairman said on Friday a conscious decision was made to work through the Election Security and Intelligence Threats task force and other security channels when the party became aware of the potential threats on its own. .

“Our concerns were never taken seriously,” Walied Soliman wrote on Twitter.

“We are met with a shrug and complete ambivalence. It was really unreal.”

Soliman declined requests for an interview.

Chinese consulates in both Vancouver and Toronto have denied any involvement, calling the allegations “absolutely baseless and fictitious.”

Conservative party officials also flagged what looked like bots filling out party polls, due to certain patterns they saw in the written responses, and when it came time to review requests for mailed-in ballots, they noticed a large number of requests. in two specific BC constituencies with large Chinese populations: Downtown Richmond and Steveston Richmond East.

When they dug deeper, they found that approximately 1,500 people who had not 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 would not be used,” the memo says.

“These ballots could be requested on behalf of residents without their knowledge, or done with specific instructions (intimidation) by a motivated actor.”

The memo noted that the party’s finite resources meant the issue was never fully explored.

The memo concluded, however, that at no time did party officials think that the Liberals themselves had anything to do with it.

“We understand that the Federal Liberals were not expected to do as well as they did with the Chinese community, and that they did not coordinate this campaign directly,” he said.

Under federal protocol, there would be a public announcement if a panel of high-level bureaucrats determined that an incident, or an accumulation of incidents, threatened Canada’s ability to hold free and fair elections.

There was no such announcement in 2021 or in connection with the 2019 election.

Responding to Friday’s Globe and Mail report, Trudeau said his government has long recognized that China is trying to interfere in Canadian democracy.

“This is not a new phenomenon. This is something that countries around the world have been dealing with for a long time and Canada is no exception,” he said.

He added: “Canada has some of the best and strongest elections in the world and all Canadians can have complete confidence that the results of the 2019 and 2021 elections were determined by Canadians and Canadians alone in the voting booth.”

But the current Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, has criticized that response, arguing that the reason Trudeau is dropping the issue is because the interference has benefited his party.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper told the Commons committee on Tuesday that what is happening is an “all-out attack” on Canadian democracy and requires further study.

“This should alarm all Canadians.”

With archives from The Canadian Press


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