Canada: students caught up in election probe

Published 08/03/2023

Canada is considering an inquiry into Chinese interference in elections after pressure from opposition parties and ordinary citizens.

It comes after an investigation found that international students from China were threatened and used as pawns in a scheme by the Chinese consulate in Toronto to nominate preferred candidates for Canada’s parliament in 2019.

Prime minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged that the People’s Republic of China attempted to interfere in the 2019 and 2021 elections, but says these activities did not affect the electoral outcomes.

On Monday, he announced that he would be appointing a special rapporteur to decide whether an inquiry should be held. The move comes as opposition politicians and ordinary citizens have been pressuring the government for an investigation.

The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, the agency responsible for probing threats to national security, says 11 different electoral ridings were targeted.

An investigation by the Global News network focused on one riding in particular – Don Valley North, a Toronto suburb. Since this riding normally elects a representative from Trudeau’s Liberal Party, the meeting to nominate a candidate is crucial.

In 2019, Han Dong captured the Don Valley North nomination. However, Global News described him as “an affiliate in China’s election interference network”. He is a Canadian citizen who emigrated to Canada with his family at the age of 13 in the early 1990s.

Although only Canadian citizens can vote in elections, nomination meetings are open to temporary and permanent residents as long as they are party members and live in the riding.

The news report alleges that the Chinese consulate brought in two busloads of international students to attend the nomination meeting. They were given fake addresses that indicated they were riding residents.

To ensure that they voted for the right candidate, the international students had Dong’s name written on their arms, Global News said. Students were threatened if they did not participate.

“They were told by the consulate to vote for Dong if they wanted to maintain their student visa status,” said Mackenzie Gray of Global News.

Following the nomination meeting, the security service met with senior Liberal Party officials and urged them to overturn the selection. “CSIS was concerned that Han Dong was connected to the People’s Republic of China’s foreign interference network in Canada,” Global News says, citing an unnamed source.

However, the Liberal Party named Dong as its candidate and he won the riding in both the 2019 and 2021 elections.

Dong denied that there was any foreign meddling in his selection. “My nomination in 2019 was open and followed the rules,” he said.

“They were told by the consulate to vote for Dong if they wanted to maintain their student visa status”

Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley is one citizen calling for a public inquiry into the election influence allegations. “Canadians must be able to trust that the electoral process is not being tampered with by a foreign government,” he said.

Christian Leuprecht, a national security expert and professor at both the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, supports the idea of a public inquiry.

“Legislative changes to regulate the selection of candidates by riding associations and a registry of foreign agents must be a top priority before the next federal election,” Leuprecht said.

He notes that the vulnerability of local riding associations being leveraged by foreign state and non-state actors is not new, citing examples over the last 40 years.

“Yet, political parties have been quite reticent about legislation to contain such behaviour,” he said. The difference in this case, he noted, is that previous instances have involved aggressive organising by Canadian citizens – not foreign actors trying to undermine the nation’s institutions.

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