At long last, the Hogue inquiry lays the foundation for a real debate about foreign interference

Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue listens as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Commissioner Justice Marie-Josee Hogue listens as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The most grave allegation levelled during the foreign interference saga of the last many months was that the Liberal government willfully turned a blind eye to Chinese state meddling in Canada's democracy because it benefited the Liberals politically. Justice Marie-Josée Hogue's initial report seems to at least cast significant doubt on that claim.

"In my opinion, the evidence I have heard to date does not demonstrate bad faith on anyone's part, or that information was deliberately and improperly withheld," Hogue says at page 150.

Hogue repeated her finding about an absence of bad faith in her prepared remarks to reporters on Friday. But in both cases, she attached a caveat.

The evidence, she wrote, "does suggest that on some occasions, information related to foreign interference did not reach its intended recipient, while on others the information was not properly understood by those who received it."

In her remarks, she said "there were some communication problems and a certain lack of understanding of the role that everyone plays, or should play, in combating foreign interference."

These are far less sensational problems. But they're still problems.

In assessing the impact of foreign interference during the 2019 and 2021 elections, Hogue states clearly and unequivocally that she does not believe any meddling undermined the integrity of the electoral system or affected which party formed government. It could have affected the result in a specific riding, she says, although she also concedes that she cannot say so with certainty.

But she does find that foreign interference has now undermined public confidence in Canadian democracy.

"While awareness and foreign interference may at one time have been largely within the domain of security and intelligence agencies and hidden from public view, the cat is now out of the proverbial bag," Hogue writes. "The result has been to shake the confidence of Canadians in their electoral processes."

"Ironically," she adds, "I note that undermining faith in democracy and government is a primary aim of many of the states that engage in foreign interference."

Which is why it's most unfortunate that this report is only coming out now — and not eight months or a year earlier.

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

In its own defence, the Liberal government can fairly argue that it established new bodies and formal processes to deal with foreign interference — a threat that fully came into view in the wake of the American presidential election in 2016.

Within the apparatus of government and federal elections, there now exists the SITE task force, the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol and the Rapid Response Mechanism (a veritable alphabet of new acronyms to learn).

(There is also the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, the body that, if cooler heads had prevailed, might have been the right forum to address the allegations raised by media reports in 2022 and 2023.)

Hogue's inquiry has illuminated those mechanisms and raised useful questions about how well they work, how they can be improved and under what parameters they should operate. Some of the problems she raises might have simple fixes. But repeatedly, Hogue found issues that will require further consideration as her inquiry continues.

The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick
The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick

Hogue empathized with Kenny Chiu, the former Conservative MP, whose re-election campaign was the subject of "erroneous information" that spread online.

"It is not obvious what help the government could or should have provided at the time," she writes. "But it raises an important question about when and how government should intervene to respond to online misinformation and disinformation."

Hogue notes that government officials could not definitively attribute online misinformation about Chiu or the Conservative Party to a state actor. But she notes that such attribution is inherently difficult. And that raises further questions.

"If we cannot expect Canada's security and intelligence community to attribute online activity to foreign countries with certainty, are we setting the bar too high by requiring certain attribution before the government intervenes?" Hogue asks. "Or are there good reasons to practice restraint, even if there will rarely be a direct response to disinformation like what Mr. Chiu faced?"

Hogue finds that a later response by the SITE task force to Conservative officials was "unnecessarily confusing."

"It would be helpful if government agencies making such assessments would use words that clearly convey their position," Hogue writes — advice that can be fairly applied to all levels and manners of modern government communication.

WATCH: CSIS director defends agency in testimony before fireign interference inquiry

More broadly, there remains the scourge of excessive reticence. CSIS, Hogue writes at one point, can be "circumspect with details when informing others of the intelligence it has gathered and the conclusions it has drawn."

If the Liberals can be happy that Hogue did not find bad faith, they still face the challenge of responding to such issues and concerns before the next federal election.

In the wake of allegations about how former Liberal MP Han Dong won the party's nomination in Don Valley North, Hogue also questions whether the Liberal nomination process is stringent enough. And she notes that it's unclear what, if anything, was done within the government to follow up on those allegations after the 2019 election.

'This report concerns us all'

In her preface, Hogue writes that, "The following pages are about our democracy, our values and what can threaten them. That is why this report concerns us all."

Nearly a year ago, when he issued his own report into sensational allegations of foreign interference, former governor general David Johnston said "democracy is challenged. And my heavens, if any country in the world should be making democracy work, it's this country, Canada. And that's what we must get about."

The original leaker(s) might take solace from the fact that the blaring headlines ultimately led to greater public awareness and a detailed exploration of both the problem of foreign interference and how the federal government is responding to it.

But it also remains fair to conclude that no one has covered themselves in glory over the past 18 months — that it took too long to get to Friday's report and there are no heroes in the story of how Canadian politics got here. If public confidence has been shaken, it's not just because of the allegations of foreign interference. It's also because of how those allegations were handled and framed.

With her initial hearings and first report — a second report that looks more deeply at the issues is due later this year — Hogue has at least laid the foundation for a real conversation about the threat, assuming that political actors are still interested in such a conversation.

Regardless, the end result might be an improved approach to foreign interference and a more resilient democracy.