Canada parliament panel seeks probe of alleged foreign meddling in elections

FILE PHOTO: CSIS director Vigneault waits to testify before the Senate National Security and Defence Committee in Ottawa

By Ismail Shakil

OTTAWA (Reuters) -A Canadian parliamentary committee passed a motion on Thursday calling on the federal government to set up a public inquiry into allegations of foreign election interference, after listening to testimony from top intelligence officials.

The motion is non-binding but increases pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government to launch a broad public inquiry into whether foreign players, in particular China, tried to meddle in the 2021 and 2019 general elections. Canadian opposition parties this week stepped up their push for such a move.

China's foreign minister, Qin Gang, refuted allegations that Chinese embassies and consulates in Canada were trying to interfere in Canadian elections, calling them "completely false and nonsensical."

Liberal lawmakers on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee voted against the motion for a broad public inquiry, but were outnumbered 6-5 by lawmakers from opposition parties.

The vote came after the head of Canada's spy agency told the committee there was no major foreign election interference in the country's last two votes, but there is an investigation underway into media reports citing secret intelligence on Chinese influence.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director David Vigneault said he agreed with findings from an investigation panel that the outcomes of the 2019 and 2021 elections had not been compromised.

He declined to confirm recent unverified Canadian media reports, which cited anonymous intelligence sources, pointing to specific attempts by China to interfere in both elections. Vigneault said CSIS and other domestic security partners were investigating the sources of the leaks.

"The bread and butter of an intelligence organization is our ability to collect secrets and keep secrets and use those secrets with the appropriate people," he said. "When that ability is threatened, it undermines the confidence of our partners domestically and internationally."

Canada is a member of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing alliance with the UK, United States, New Zealand and Australia.

Trudeau has acknowledged that there were interference attempts by China, but insisted the outcomes of the votes were not altered. On Monday, Trudeau denied one report saying a Liberal candidate who is now a member of parliament had been supported by Beijing.

Vigneault on Thursday said CSIS would participate if a public inquiry was launched, but added that discussing classified information would be a "key conundrum," echoing earlier remarks by Canada's top security adviser, Jody Thomas.

(Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa and Nia Williams in British Columbia; editing by Steve Scherer, Bill Berkrot, David Gregorio and Leslie Adler)