This article originally appeared in the National Post.
By Ryan Alford, February 5, 2024
The foreign interference inquiry into the 2019 and 2021 elections (also known as the “Hogue commission,” named for Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue) is holding preliminary hearings this week. Those with experience with public inquiries in general, and with the Rouleau commission into the emergency powers declaration of 2022 in particular, can see it will be a failure.
When it comes to public inquiries, the government makes the rules, and when it says, “Heads I win, tails you lose,” the only winning move is not to play. Those rules, written by the cabinet in the form of a public inquiry commission’s mandate and terms of reference, allow the government to reveal and restrict information about its own failures as it sees fit.
The most important feature of the Hogue commission’s mandate is the restriction on the information provided to the inquiry: the terms of reference state plainly that if the government didn’t provide a confidential cabinet document to Special Rapporteur David Johnston back in 2023 when he was tasked with looking into election interference without the authority of a public inquiry, the commissioner won’t see it, either.
The details that made it into Johnston’s final report were far more tame than what the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) allegedly told former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole when he led the party. O’Toole told Parliament that CSIS informed him that he had been targeted in an ongoing campaign of misinformation coordinated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). When asked, Johnston said that was news to him. (Subsequently, NDP MP Jenny Kwan added that CSIS had told her she was an “evergreen” target of Beijing.)
When Johnston was confronted about the discrepancies, he merely noted that the information CSIS revealed had not been made available to him at the time, and he had “reported on what was made available to us … the amount of information available was an ocean and we saw a very large lake.” (Unfortunately, Johnston could not see any issue with the political equivalent of investigating the causes of the sinking of the Titanic when directed to do so at Lac Tremblant).
Johnston concluded, based on the information provided to him by the government, that he could not attribute the misinformation spread during the 2021 election to state actors. Information coming from many unofficial sources — and via leaks — makes this untenable. Evidence also shows that Chinese Canadians in Richmond, B.C. were bombarded with slander targeting local Conservative MP Kenny Chiu on the WeChat social media platform.
The Hogue commission should add to its focus the activities of Senator Yuen Pau Woo — and the government’s knowledge of these activities. However, once again, the commission’s ability to investigate hinges entirely on the government’s willingness to hand over sensitive and potentially incriminating documents, and for those targeted by misinformation to speak freely knowing that information will be available immediately to those they named as their persecutors.
Until 2022, Woo served as the facilitator (i.e., caucus leader) of the Liberal-aligned Independent Senators Group. In a decision made on Dec. 4, Commissioner Hogue granted Woo the right to participate in the foreign interference inquiry as an intervenor, as “he will contribute the perspective of a political figure working to address issues of foreign interference while advocating for a community that risks being stigmatized or negatively impacted by counter-interference measures, whether proposed or put in place.”
Woo has been accused of adopting the CCP’s rhetoric but has denied working for China. Groups targeted by CCP intelligence operations in Canada (including Uyghurs and Hong Kongers) opposed Woo’s participation in the interference inquiry (along with that of politicians Han Dong and Michael Chan) on the ground that he would be allowed “access to sensitive information shared by witnesses or victims (and) will deter witnesses from speaking freely.”
Their concerns were aired around the same time as a report emerged alleging Woo had pledged to support the United Front, which is an arm of the CCP. In December, investigative journalist Sam Cooper reported that a recording existed of Woo briefing the Canada Committee 100 Society — a Chinese cultural organization with ties to the United Front according to declassified American intelligence — in May of 2020. In that recording, Woo advised members that groups officially listed by the CCP as United Front Work Department (UFWD) organizations cannot (and presumably, will not) be considered agents of the Chinese state.
However, a Privy Council Office report from 2020 shows that the government knew the CCP’s UFWD had allegedly coordinated electoral interference through community groups. The report specified that the UFWD had facilitated electoral interference in 2019, noting that “the UFWD’s extensive network of quasi-official and local community and interest groups allow it to obfuscate communication and the flow of funds between Canadian targets and Chinese officials.” Despite all this, Woo had reassured the Canada Committee 100 Society that they could continue their activities.
It is already a given that the commission will receive a large portion of its testimony in secret with no cross-examination by the parties. Additionally, the government will have the last word not merely on what information is provided to the inquiry, but on what the commission can publish — even in its final report, as the commission’s terms of reference refer to disclosure procedures that clearly implicate the attorney general’s power to withhold information for the purpose of national security.
This is why the first two days of the inquiry were devoted to managing expectations about how the public’s right to know would need to be “balanced” against national security confidentiality and all the other reasons the government will invoke to justify withholding and censoring information.
It is ironic that at an inquiry made possible by whistleblowers within CSIS, those at the commission will be classed “persons personally bound to secrecy” by an order-in-council issued in tandem with the mandate of the Hogue commission. Most won’t mind; the Hogue commission hired a number of personnel who did yeoman service at the Rouleau commission, including its lead counsel and research council chair.
This time around, there have been no grand public assurances that the government is committed to providing unprecedented access to information. Rather, we’ve been put on notice that obfuscation and dithering over confidentiality will be used to beat us down.
Some parties, like the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, have already indicated they have had enough of the charade. Others, including those like members of Parliament Michael Chong and Jenny Kwan, who were the victims of shocking hostility and ineptitude from the CCP and the government, will likely persist, although it is already clear that they deserve much more information, and much better treatment from the Hogue commission.
As for myself, I can only say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Ryan Alford is a professor in the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law at Lakehead University and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.