EXIT INTERVIEW: Erin O'Toole on his CSIS brief and allegations that Chinese officials in Toronto intimidated voters and a federal candidate
What is Beijing's United Front, and how did it undermine democracy during the 2021 federal election?
In his final days as an MP former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole agrees to meet for a long interview in his office at the Confederation Building, on the corner of Wellington and Bank.
We are in very different professions, politician and reporter. But we share something in common. According to CSIS we both upset the Chinese Communist Party and earned the full attention of Chinese intelligence agents.
O’Toole recently received a belated CSIS threat brief on events surrounding the 2021 federal election and shared some of the details in a groundbreaking Parliamentary speech.
Before turning on my tape recorder to ask about CSIS’s disclosures, I tell O’Toole that I got my own CSIS threat brief in 2021. The CCP’s targeting of me stems back to May 2020.
A few weeks after I wrote a story on Beijing’s massive PPE extraction operations in Canadian cities, news broke in Vancouver that one of Liberal MP Joyce Murray’s staffers had used the constituency office’s WeChat group to solicit ‘crowdfunding’ for a lawsuit against me.
In 2021 I went on to write a book, Wilful Blindness, about the intersection of Chinese intelligence and organized crime in the United Front, Beijing’s overseas interference arm.
I wrote that United Front actors were tied to the WeChat group that used Murray’s office against my reporting. And similar WeChat networks attacked Richmond MP Kenny Chiu before and during the 2021 election. My book made me an enemy of Beijing.
So, a CSIS officer met me in Ottawa. This was an official brief with concise disclosures. I was told that Chinese security agents in Canada are dangerous. And they were tasked to look into my background, study the impact of my book, and to discover my reporting sources.
The Chinese Communist Party wanted to silence my reporting on interference in Canada. So when I heard O’Toole’s speech, I understood what he spoke of, on a number of levels.
He stood in Parliament, and in carefully worded sentences, said CSIS found that Beijing’s United Front Work Department had targeted him and his party with sophisticated misinformation that included use of WeChat channels, tasking of operators in Canada, and payments of funds to United Front workers.
O’Toole also spoke of a campaign of voter suppression in the 2021 election.
I wanted to get more details on what happened during the 2021 election. We covered a lot of ground, and the conversation here is edited for length.
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I'm going to start with your speech. I think it's fair to say this was a historic speech in Parliament. You obviously put some legal consideration into it. This was the first time I've seen – now a former Canadian leader of a major party – explain the full scope of this, what I know is a multi-dimensional United Front Work Department campaign to subvert our democracy. What I've learned from my documents and sources, some of it has been reported in the past months, is that the United Front seeks to fund politicians. They believe they can control, quote, “friends of China.”
This funding and support can come through Chinese Communist Party controlled media, and they seek to attack or undermine politicians that stand and speak up. If you become more friendly to China, the attacks might stop.
So this is very well-funded and organized, very concrete. But this is what I appreciated in your speech. It's also psychological – and it's novel as you called it. It's expanding. So tell me in plain words, what you can about what you learned from CSIS of how Beijing is directing the United Front and its proxies in Canada.
Thanks Sam, and thanks for your coverage of these issues over many years.
I'm glad that I was able to, before I leave public life, add to this important debate that's already underway on foreign interference in our elections, and particularly from the Communist government in China, because it's getting worse. And if we turn a blind eye to it, it will only embolden and empower.
The speech I gave in the House, which was very procedural, I wanted to get on the record, aspects of what CSIS warned me about, two years [after the 2021 election interference.]
But at least now, to get that on public record, to make sure it's examined fully, so that we can safeguard our democracy.
I'll use the same categories I did with the speech. CSIS briefed me on a number of things that they had identified through their intelligence. They broke it down into, first, financial. That's foreign money. The second category was human resources. That's people in the United Front Work Department. And third was WeChat. So misinformation through specific platforms.
I think if people know what WeChat is, they probably know there's a lot of misinformation on there. And fourth was voter suppression in at least one electoral district. And when I see the odd journalist or the odd commentator, kind of discount how many ridings might have been influenced?
I want people to remember we have a first past the post Parliamentary Democracy. Meaning, we hold 338 elections on the same day. If we know that there's one riding where there's been malevolent action, that should concern all Canadians.
I've always said I lost the election. I'm never disputing that. But I really think we're losing sight of the fact that if we're just going to look at one, two, five, ten ridings as acceptable levels of foreign interference? I don't think one riding should be acceptable.