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Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:09
Thank you very much, Madam Chair. It's nice to see you and nice to see all of you as former colleagues.
I am appearing today as a private citizen in your study on the intimidation campaign orchestrated by the Communist Party of China against the Honourable Michael Chong and other members of Parliament, but my testimony will be based on my experience from my time as the leader of the Conservative Party, as shadow minister for foreign affairs and, for a little more than a decade, as member of Parliament for Durham.
Like MPs Chong and Jenny Kwan, I was briefed by CSIS on some of the intelligence related to interference against me before I retired as a member of Parliament a few months ago. My comments today will build upon my privilege motion from May 30, 2023. I would invite the committee to review that speech and my submissions for the purposes of your study.
Dear friends, I am honoured to be with you a few months after giving my last speech in the House of Commons.
The issue of Chinese interference in our democracy is an important one, and I'm glad you're studying it. I am also pleased that Justice Hogue will independently conduct a public inquiry into this matter.
Foreign interference in our country is a very important issue. It has to be more important than partisan politics. I will be critical in some of my comments today, but the fact remains that I have always tried to address this issue in a serious and non-partisan way.
I would like to start my remarks with a note of condolences to the family of the Honourable Ian Shugart, who passed away yesterday: a senator, a former Clerk of the Privy Council, an exemplary civil servant and a friend to many of us.
The words from his maiden speech a few months ago serve as a reminder to us on the virtue of restraint, particularly on issues of national importance such as this. He said this:
Canada is a big, diverse country—geographically, socially, culturally, economically and philosophically. For each of us, for parties and for institutions, restraint may begin with acknowledging that our point of view—legitimate as it is—is not the only point of view.
My point of view today, Madam Chair, is that we must acknowledge that we've not been doing enough to safeguard our democracy and to react to the issue of foreign interference in our politics and our public institutions. We are a diverse country, and we cherish the liberties that thousands of Canadians fought and died for. We must also realize that these same positive aspects of our country—our diversity and these incredible freedoms—can be turned against us in this age of unprecedented disruption, misinformation and geopolitical realignment.
As a country, we must realize that Canada has been like the frog in a pot of boiling water. Multiple governments of both stripes ignored our intelligence agencies, who've been warning about the heat in the water from China. These warnings were ignored repeatedly until things came to a boil over the last few years with what we could call “the three Michaels”: Kovrig, Spavor, and Chong. The country longed for the release of the two Michaels from prison in China, and the country was deeply shocked by the news about known risks to the family of Michael Chong. I think the country has been waking up to the heat in the last few years.
Ironically, I'm appearing before you just days after CSIS director David Vigneault appeared on 60 Minutes in the United States alongside his Five Eyes intelligence colleagues. For senior intelligence figures, this was an unprecedented public display of shared concern and shared cause from a group wholly unaccustomed to doing major media interviews.
If our intelligence agencies are now openly warning the public about some of the risks with respect to China, each one of you as parliamentarians has a duty to heed their warnings and make the changes and investments needed to safeguard our country, its people and our interests.
In my first year as a member of Parliament, I spoke about China for the first time in a debate on counterfeit goods. I had worked on this issue as a lawyer, and China was almost always the source of the problem. A year later, I was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade, and my mission was to defend the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement with China, the famous FIPA. It was a challenge for me, because all political parties knew that there were risks with China—I knew that as well—but economic relations with China were a priority.
China has always been a challenge for Liberal and Conservative governments alike because the economic opportunities were so important, and that meant there would be a risk that some of the conduct of China at home and abroad might be ignored. I always spoke about this challenge and the balance we needed with China, and the need for a bipartisan approach to it, including in 2019, when I brought forward the motion to create the special committee on Canada-China relations.
This motion was the result of many years of questions about the handling of this relationship by Prime Minister Trudeau. The approval of sensitive takeovers of Canadian companies, like ITF to O-Net Communications, or Norsat to the Chinese-controlled firm Hytera, or, more recently, the Neo Lithium transaction involving critical minerals: All of these approvals raised questions from our closest allies, particularly in the United States.
At the same time as the green-lighting of these deals, we had the government flirt with the idea of an extradition treaty with China at the same time we saw mounting risks in the South China Sea and a prolonged attack on religious and ethnic minorities in China like the Uyghurs. With my 2019 motion, I was advocating for a pause and a chance to reset our interests and values with respect to our relationship with China. I also moved the motion for the Canada-China committee on the first anniversary of the illegal detention of the two Michaels. We tried as an opposition to approach the issue carefully, given their situation, but their detention also underscored the need for a major realignment in our approach to China.
I am proud of the work done by the Special Committee on the Canada–People's Republic of China Relationship.
China remains an important trading partner for Canada, and we must continue to seek the right balance. Many years ago, I said that relations with China would be a challenge for the next generation in matters of foreign affairs. That's why we need to grow as a country and take risks seriously.
Madam Justice Hogue began her mandate as commissioner of the inquiry into foreign interference just on September 18. The work of this committee and the work of the special committee on Canada-China relations can serve as a touchstone for her in this inquiry. I invite Justice Hogue to follow these events closely and not have her review limited in any way, or curated in an outcome-driven manner, as was the case with the Right Honourable David Johnston.
In my privilege motion, I referenced my briefing from CSIS in a very careful manner to ensure that intelligence aspects could be safeguarded. The service had identified four types of threats involving me, which I described as “categories” of threats. The first category was foreign funding, to undermine the prospects of me and the party I was leading. The second was the use of people on the ground in Canada through the United Front Work Department. The third category related to the use of foreign-controlled and -directed social media messaging to spread disinformation to voting Canadians by using foreign-language channels like WeChat. The final category raised to me involved evidence of voter suppression efforts by China in one constituency in Canada.
I was very careful in my speech in June to not disclose elements that would undermine our intelligence-gathering efforts, so I will not discuss any of these issues in any further detail today. I think these examples of interference on their own show the seriousness of the problem. I also think, from my own perspective, that they're likely the tip of the iceberg. Intelligence resources are strained in Canada and collection is difficult. I believe the examples involving several members of Parliament suggest there is a much greater problem than we are able to verify.
In my final minutes, I will place on the record just three questions that I hope Justice Hogue is seized with in her inquiry on foreign interference and that I hope the members of this committee push for answers on in the weeks and months ahead.
Foreign interference can be defined as “an attempt by agents of a foreign state to influence the opinion, views, and decisions of Canadians with the aim to obtaining a political, policy, or economic advantage”. Friends, this is not my definition. It's the definition given to the public safety committee of Parliament in 2010 by Dick Fadden, who was then the director of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service. Mr. Fadden defined foreign interference to Parliament because he was called on the carpet following a media report of a speech he gave in Toronto, when he revealed that CSIS had concerns about Chinese influence on two elected officials in Canada. This was 2009 and 2010. Mr. Fadden acknowledged that the Ontario provincial government was briefed on the issue with respect to one of their ministers that year.
My first question is this: If CSIS had flagged concerns about a senior Liberal Party elected official for review in 2010, why did it take Minister Blair four months to authorize a CSIS warrant for this same person in 2021?
Second, it is on the public record that the Conservative Party raised serious questions about interference both during and after the 2021 federal election. Why did the person selected by the Prime Minister and the Privy Council Office to perform an assessment on the critical election incident protocol, Mr. Morris Rosenberg, not interview the Conservative leader or my campaign chair, who was my designated and security-cleared representative?
I'll move on to my third and final question. At the start of the 2021 federal election, the panel of five senior officials under the critical election protocol briefed the representatives of the political parties. The parties were informed that there were no serious issues of foreign interference to flag as the campaign got under way, and no significant issues of interference from the previous election in 2019. Because of good reporting and leaks of information, we now know about intelligence reports involving clandestine funding by China in the 2019 election. We know about multiple intelligence briefings to the Prime Minister in 2021. We know about the threat assessment involving a Chinese embassy official and the family of Michael Chong just before the 2021 election. We now know that other MPs were targeted and that NSICOP had reported it in 2019.
With all this in mind, who made the decision to say that there was no significant cause for concern in the 2021 election?
Dear friends, we must learn from the errors of the past. That is why I am here today.
Thank you.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:25
I would, Mr. Cooper. It would be an example of one of the largest breakdowns of accountability with respect to sensitive intelligence and members of Parliament that I'm aware of.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:25
I would like to see some more responsibility.
I tried in my remarks today to show how multiple governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have struggled with the right balance with respect to China. I do believe that after 2017 and the 19th people's congress and the more aggressive style of conduct by China that the Prime Minister should have responded to that. I think he needs to be accountable for it.
The fact that we're learning years after the fact about some of the risks they were briefed on, only due to leaks and good reporting, should trouble Canadians.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:26
The fact that Mr. Rosenberg didn't speak to me, to my designate Mr. Soliman, who had to be security screened to be part of the election protocol, or Mr. Chiu, who was very, very publicly targeted during the election—in a manner that we were complaining about during the election—makes his report completely incomplete, to a point of professionally negligent, in my view.
The language used in his report, that “an opportunity”—I may be misquoting that—to speak to representatives of the party.... There was no opportunity, and I led the party at the time.
Did he speak to some low-level functionary and not the two or three people with intimate knowledge of the foreign interference? It troubles me, because the panel of five senior bureaucrats knew exactly who my designate was on that panel. I was too busy because I was running an election.
Our concerns were dismissed. We were not briefed at the beginning about the problems in 2019. Were the panel of five even aware of the intelligence related to 2019? We had a lot of trust in the system because of the respect we have for those five...but I think the breakdown includes Mr. Trudeau and the panel of five themselves.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:29
I don't know Mr. Rosenberg. I appreciate his work for years for Canada, but you're right, Mr. Cooper, as a lawyer—as you are—that's very curious language that he used in that report. You can interview all the university professors, security experts and all the people who observed the election, or you can talk to the participants who were targeted in the election, and he failed to do so.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:31
Listen, I appreciate that offer, but I do think the public nature of the stories by Mr. Cooper, Mr. Chase and Mr. Fife requires us to talk responsibly but to talk in an open fashion.
Thank you as well for the nice comments, and for your family's commitment to service in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Colleagues—or former colleagues—our allies can do this, so why can't we? Intelligence in Congress.... Members of Congress can be briefed—
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:31
Sure. I just think that we can, in a serious fashion, examine these issues in a way that is warranted for the country.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:32
Not that I recall, no—certainly not that I was a target. I talked about the four “categories” of target.
I also took a day because I consulted a national security lawyer to ensure my presentation in the House was done responsibly and did not in any way divulge or weaken our intelligence sources.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:34
Respectfully, I believe you're mistaken. That member, whether it's Mr. Chong, Ms. Kwan or myself, deserves the ability to make the decision themselves on whether they would exercise their privilege as a member.
When I was foreign affairs shadow minister, I had a sister, her husband and two children living in Hong Kong. I was very worried about their well being. These were questions I was always grappling with, but I was always trying to put the public good and what was best for Canada first.
I believe every member is entitled to make that decision. If there was a dossier on a member, I believe it's a breach of their privilege for them not to be aware of it at the moment it comes to the attention of the responsible minister.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:35
Not to any degree other than my designate being briefed through the protocol. It was more of a one-way street of us sharing what we gathered rather than anything we received.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:37
Thank you for the question.
The issue is a serious one. In fact, it impacted me not only as an MP, but also as a father and as the brother of my sister who lived in Hong Kong.
That's why it is important that Parliament adopts an approach similar to that of the United States in terms of intelligence and the risks involved for the country and its MPs.
As I said to Ms. Romanado, it is very important that MPs have the choice of maintaining or not their stance towards China. Each individual MP will wrestle with the risk of foreign interference for his or her family and community.
As a veteran, I believe that public safety and issues related to intelligence and national interests are a priority.
That is how I see things, but each MP needs to be able to make their own decisions.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:38
Yes, absolutely.
That's why I said in my statement that all parties need to take a non-partisan approach. I understand that it is difficult, but it is important for our fellow citizens and the diaspora communities in Canada.
We have heard allegations from the Prime Minister in the House of Commons about a murder in Canada. As a Parliament and as a country, we must take a more serious approach to foreign interference.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:40
Yes. That is why I have been calling for an independent investigation for a few months, and that is why I am pleased to see Justice Hogue's role.
We must take a serious and unfettered approach to intelligence. Unfortunately, Mr. Johnston received a predetermined briefing with partial information. I have a lot of respect for him, but following the allegations against Ms. Kwan and Mr. Chong and the problems that occurred in 2019 and 2021, as well as the case of the two Michaels and the transactions involving Canadian companies in the area of critical minerals, we must take a more serious approach, and we must examine the decisions made by the government in a professional and, I hope, non-partisan manner. This is important if we want to preserve the interests and values of our country.
Erin O'Toole
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Hon. Erin O'Toole
2023-10-26 11:42
Like our allies, we definitely need a registry.
In my opinion, every riding and every member of Parliament counts. If there are allegations of interference in Vancouver or Markham, that has to be taken into account. It is possible to get a positive result. I've said this several times to the Prime Minister. Having said that, I am still concerned about certain ridings, whose constituents are entitled to a professional and serious investigation.
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