O'Toole says Canada’s been a 'frog in … boiling water' on Chinese interference

The former Conservative leader told MPs there were major issues on foreign interference that have been unaddressed

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OTTAWA — Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole told MPs Thursday that Canada has been ignoring threats from China for far too long and the country must wake up to the new realities of Beijing’s interference in our democracy.

“As a country, we must realize that Canada has been like the frog in a pot of boiling water; multiple governments of both stripes have ignored our intelligence agencies, who have been warning about the heat in the water from China,” he told MPs at a House of Commons committee.

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O’Toole, who retired as an MP earlier this year, was invited to speak to the procedure and House affairs committee. That committee is studying foreign interference targeting Conservative MP Michael Chong and whether it amounted to a breach of his privilege as an MP.

O’Toole said Canada isn’t doing enough to react to a world that is changing rapidly and to foreign actors who are much more aggressive than they have been in the past.

“We’ve not been doing enough to safeguard our democracy and to react to the issue of foreign interference in our politics and our public institutions,” O’Toole said. “We must also realize the same positive aspects of our country, our diversity, and these incredible freedoms can be turned against us in this age of unprecedented disruption, misinformation and geopolitical realignment.”

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O’Toole, who was also targeted by Chinese interference, said the fact he and other MPs found out about these operations long after they happened is a failure of the current government.

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“It would be an example of one of the largest breakdowns of accountability with respect to sensitive intelligence and members of Parliament that I’m aware of.”

He said there desperately needs to be a better system for dealing with such intelligence information. “The fact that we’re learning years after the fact about some of the risks they were briefed on, only due to leaks and good reporting, should trouble Canadians.”

O’Toole also raised concerns about two postelection reviews of foreign interference, because he said neither report actually considered input from the Conservative party or his leadership team.

Under a system brought in by the Liberal government, a panel of five senior bureaucrats receives information during elections from CSIS, the RCMP about potential foreign interference. That panel then makes decisions about whether or not to go public with the information. In both the 2021 and 2019 elections they did not flag any concerns about foreign interference.

The work of that panel is then reviewed and a final public report is written. In the case of the 2021 election, the final report was written by Morris Rosenberg, a former deputy minister who had also served as president of the Trudeau Foundation.

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O’Toole said Rosenberg never met with him, his campaign manager or former MP Kenny Chiu, who alleged that foreign interference in his riding was proof the system didn’t work as well as it should have.

“The fact that those two people, who have been the subject or source of concerns about interference, weren’t talked to in the examination of the 2021 election is a colossal failure in my view,” O’Toole said.

O’Toole added that he has deep respect for former governor general David Johnston, but was also disappointed in Johnson’s review of election interference. O’Toole previously revealed that when he met with Johnston, he was told the final report was already out for translation.

“The very fact that the draft of their report was at translation and late in the meeting they acknowledged that to me was profoundly disappointing. It was like I was a checkbox on a list.”

O’Toole said he knows misinformation about him was spreading widely through social media platforms, including on WeChat, and he believes the election panel should have issued public warnings about that.

“A lot of people get their news from WeChat and Facebook. And if that’s being corrupted, We needed to warn people to just take a second look and that warning never came.”

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Liberal MP Terry Duguid asked O’Toole whether opposition leaders should get clearance to receive classified security briefings, specifically citing current Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who has declined a security clearance.

“My understanding is that the current leader of the Conservative party has refused a briefing and should the party leaders have those kinds of briefings so that they can have inside knowledge of foreign interference or at least find out what’s going on,” he said to O’Toole.

O’Toole said there needs to be a better way to share intelligence information in Parliament. He noted many of Canada’s allies are able to share information and talk in a more forthright way about security matters.

He said the Trudeau government’s offer to provide more information always come after the incident has been reported in the news.

“The debriefings have to happen before the Globe and Mail headlines, because then I understand the concerns Mr. Poilievre has about it limiting his ability to hold the government to account.”

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