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China Accused of Meddling in Canada’s Elections

FILE - People cast their ballots at the Delta Hotel on voting day for the 2021 Canadian election in Montreal, Quebec on September 20, 2021.
FILE - People cast their ballots at the Delta Hotel on voting day for the 2021 Canadian election in Montreal, Quebec on September 20, 2021.

Allegations are mounting that China may have interfered in Canada’s most recent federal elections to favor Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party. One Conservative candidate near Vancouver says a deliberate misinformation campaign led to his defeat in 2021.

Kenny Chiu, a member of Canada’s Conservative Party, was elected as member of Parliament for Steveston Richmond-East in 2019. His suburban Vancouver district has a population that is just over 50% ethnic Chinese. In the next election 22 months later, he was defeated by the Liberal Party candidate, who is now the current MP for the constituency.

The 2021 contest saw the Liberal Party improve its numbers in the district by roughly 1,800 votes compared to 2019. Votes for Chiu, on the other hand, dropped by more than 4,400 compared to the previous election.

Beyond the numbers, Chiu noticed a difference in how he was received by voters while campaigning in 2021. He says, in 2019, people were quite welcoming and engaged him in conversation. Not so in 2021.

“Some of them were obviously disturbed, frustrated, and yet some of them are even showing signs of being angry,” Chiu recounted. “And at the time, I was quite puzzled. What was that all about? Because, I mean, again, it's only been 22 months and it's during a pandemic.”

Chiu, who was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Canada, said he later found out through Disinfo Watch, Quebec-based McGill University and the Atlantic Council that he was smeared by a disinformation campaign that sought to influence ethnic Chinese voters. He said false rumors started spreading online and on the Chinese instant messaging app WeChat, that the Conservative Party and Chiu himself were going to ban the platform in Canada.

WeChat is the only messaging service that many in Canada’s Chinese community can use to communicate with friends and family in China.

Chiu remembered some of the specific rumors: “'He is anti-Chinese. He hates Chinese. He's a traitor.’”

“And all these labels are leveled on me personally,” Chiu said. “There's also been articles written saying that the Conservatives are anti-China, that Erin O'Toole, the Conservative leader back then, is going to ban WeChat.”

Not everyone sees a conspiracy. Longtime Liberal Party activist Mark Marissen, who has run several campaigns at the federal, provincial and local level, points out the 2021 Conservative campaign and then-leader Erin O’Toole did, in fact, take a harder line against China.

“There was a real opposition amongst many people within the community to the way that O'Toole was campaigning about China,” Marissen told VOA.

Kareem Allam, who has run several campaigns for Conservative candidates, said, going forward, there should be more scrutiny by entities like CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, of possible election meddling from abroad.

“But if I have a concern about a candidate, potentially with regards to foreign interference related matters, CSIS is legally bound to not report on any Canadian nationals,” Allam explained. “And if you're running for Canadian office, you have to be a Canadian citizen. So there's no way for me to clear whether this person — who could end up being a member of parliament who could end up being a cabinet minister.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who leads Canada’s Liberal Party, has appointed former Governor General David Johnston as a “special rapporteur” to investigate whether a formal inquiry into election meddling is needed. His report is due by the end of May.