Looming federal byelections will get ‘enhanced’ interference monitoring

The federal government is tightening its foreign election interference monitoring for four byelections set for next month.

Ottawa announced Tuesday that the June 19 byelections in Manitoba’s Portage—Lisgar and Winnipeg South Centre, Ontario’s Oxford and Quebec’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Westmount, will have “enhanced” surveillance for threats during the campaigns.

The federal government has been under fire for months over its handling of reported Chinese interference in Canadian elections and society. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been under pressure to call a public inquiry but put that task to David Johnston, who, as a special rapporteur, will decide by May 23 whether one is needed.

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“The Security and Intelligence Threats (SITE) Task Force will provide enhanced monitoring and assessing of foreign interference threats during the by-election period. These assessments will be provided to the Deputy Minister Committee on Intelligence Response, which will stand ready to brief and advise ministers with mandates to combat foreign interference and protect Canada’s democratic institutions,” Ottawa said in a news release.

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“Lines of communications will also be opened with designated representatives of political parties to ensure engagement should it become necessary over the course of the byelection period.”

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Ottawa added that SITE will also produce both a classified and an unclassified report a day after the vote. It will include the group’s assessment of any attempts at foreign interference identified during the byelections.

The classified report will be made available to Trudeau and relevant ministers, as well as to Johnston, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and identified party representatives with appropriate security clearances.

A report released in February found that there was no foreign interference that “threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election” in 2021. However, there were attempts to interfere in the election that didn’t meet the threshold for a panel of experts tasked with monitoring risks to the election to report those attempts to the public.

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The panel cited the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSE), one of Canada’s intelligence agencies, which it says considered it “very likely” that Canadian voters would encounter “some form of foreign cyber interference ahead of and during the 2021 federal election.”

These cyber activities, the report went on to say, were mainly attributed to state actors — especially China, Russia and Iran.

The report concluded that the nature of threats to Canada is “evolving” and that “it is becoming clearer that election interference is only one element of a broader series of threats to Canada’s democratic institutions.”

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