By Ismail Shakil
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Foreign interference in elections is a very serious issue and Canada must be on guard against it, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday, following a media report saying that China sought to influence the outcome of the 2021 election.
Already tense Sino-Canadian relations have become more strained since the shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over North American airspace earlier this month and a recent Canadian media report about what it said were Beijing's attempts to influence the last vote.
Last week, the Globe and Mail newspaper cited secret and top-secret Canadian spy-agency documents saying that Chinese diplomats and their proxies worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered more hostile to Beijing.
The Globe also said the documents showed China favored a Trudeau re-election, albeit with a parliamentary minority, which was in fact the outcome.
"This is an extraordinarily serious issue... we are seeing systematic attempts at interference by countries like China and Russia and others who want to destabilize democracies," Trudeau told reporters in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
"Everyone should be worried about the fact that countries like China and Russia and others are continually trying to spread misinformation and disinformation, trying to interfere in our elections unsuccessfully, so far," he said, but cautioned against falling into "partisan traps."
The leader of Canada's main opposition party, Conservative Pierre Poilievre, last week accused Trudeau of ignoring the Chinese interference and benefiting from it.
"Amplifying and giving reasons to mistrust the outcome of an election... is not a good path to go down for society or for democracy," Trudeau said.
Trudeau raised "serious concerns" directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping late last year over Beijing's suspected meddling in the 2019 election, which had been reported by a domestic broadcaster.
The relationship between China and Canada has been tense since the detention of China's Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou in 2018 and Beijing's subsequent arrest of two Canadians on spying charges. All three were later released but relations remain sour.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ottawa confirmed it was aware of other air and maritime surveillance attempts by China that were thwarted by the Canadian military, after the Globe reported Chinese floating devices were found in the Arctic in autumn.
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Over the weekend, China's top diplomat Wang Yi said the U.S. handling of the balloon incident had been "unimaginable" and "hysterical," an "absurd" act that had violated international norms.
(Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa, additional reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Chris Reese, William Maclean)