In June 2010, just four months after Vancouver welcomed athletes to the Winter Olympics, then-Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director Richard Fadden suggested that some public servants in British Columbia were under the influence of foreign governments. Fadden, following a scathing rebuke from then-premier Gordon Campbell, later clarified his remarks, and stated: “Foreign interference is a common occurrence in many countries around the world and has been for decades.”
The past two weeks have been challenging for the federal government, with reports of foreign interference in federal nomination processes. When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about the situation, the appetite for an independent inquiry into this matter is unquestionable.
Across the country, almost three in five Canadians (58 per cent) say that, from what they have seen, read, heard or experienced, foreign governments have successfully influenced federal elections in Canada in this century. Almost half (49 per cent) believe foreign interference has reached federal nomination contests as well.
Fewer Canadians think foreign entities have successfully interfered in provincial elections (42 per cent), provincial nomination contests (35 per cent), municipal elections (33 per cent) and municipal nomination contests (29 per cent).
There are some striking differences across the country. The results on most questions are low in Atlantic Canada and Quebec but climb higher in Alberta and Ontario. In B.C., where foreign-backed activity has been identified in municipal and federal contests, residents are more likely to believe that democratic processes have been targeted.
When Canadians pondered the way in which five foreign governments behave, the results are dramatic. Few Canadians regard the United Kingdom (13 per cent), France (10 per cent) and Germany (nine per cent) as entities that would be “very likely” to have attempted to influence an election in Canada.
Three other countries do not fare as well. About one in four Canadians (24 per cent) think the United States is “very likely” to have attempted to influence electoral processes in Canada in this century. The rating is higher for Russia (28 per cent) and China (33 per cent) – both traditionally among the least-liked nations for Canadians.
There are some generational differences. Canadians aged 55 and over are more convinced that the Chinese and Russian governments (45 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively) have attempted to sway elections. Canadians aged 18 to 34 are more likely to be wary of the U.S. (32 per cent).
In any case, Canadians believe this is an issue that demands further exploration. Almost two-thirds (64 per cent) support calling an independent inquiry into foreign interference on electoral processes in Canada, a request that is particularly forceful among men (71 per cent) and Canadians aged 55 and over (73 per cent).
B.C. leads the way in endorsing an independent inquiry (70 per cent), followed by Ontario (67 per cent), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (also 67 per cent), Alberta (63 per cent), Quebec (59 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (also 59 per cent).
Enthusiasm for an independent inquiry into foreign interference on electoral processes in Canada is highest among Conservative Party voters in 2021 (73 per cent), but sizable majorities of those who voted for the Liberal Party (65 per cent) and the New Democratic Party (NDP) (63 per cent) are also in favour.
Aside from what an inquiry may reveal, other jurisdictions have much to teach Canada on the proper way to address the issue at hand. The Government of Australia has laws that criminalize covert and deceptive or threatening activities by persons intending to interfere with Australia’s democratic systems and processes, or to support the intelligence activities of a foreign government.
A crucial aspect of the Australian legislation is that it makes no distinction between elected officials and other citizens who could be turned – willingly or unwillingly – into assets by a foreign entity. In the Canadian context, this may entail universities that welcome seemingly innocent donations, lobbyists who set up meetings or individuals who accept invitations to “leadership” programs abroad.
Canadians like what they see in Australia, and more than seven in 10 (72 per cent) would welcome similar laws in our country – including 80 per cent of Liberal voters, 75 per cent of New Democratic voters and 73 per cent of Conservative voters. A new law would remove all ambiguity between “diplomacy” and “useful idiocy.”
It is too simplistic to look at foreign interference in Canada as a China-only issue. Canadians believe that a public inquiry is in order and would like to see the federal government move to ensure that all citizens – not just those in office or seeking it – are uncorrupted.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from Feb. 26-28 among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.