Conservative losses in BC, Ontario considered 'anomalies' amid foreign interference concerns

Former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu believes a coordinated campaign from Beijing cost him his seat in the 2021 federal election.

Conservative losses in BC, Ontario considered 'anomalies' amid foreign interference concerns
The Canadian Press / Paul Daly
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Conservative campaign officials identified ridings across BC and Ontario as areas of concern in the 2021 federal election amid ongoing allegations of foreign interference by China. The ridings are all home to large populations of Chinese Canadians, according to voting tallies.

Across multiple ridings, a similar pattern emerged: Conservative candidates received significantly fewer supporters coming to the polls. However, the Liberals did not see significant gains because many voters did not vote.

Conservatives pointed to Markham–Unionville, the riding of former MP Bob Saroya, as one junction of concern. Saroya, who won the suburban Toronto seat in 2015 and 2019 as the lone Conservative Toronto-area seat, received 24,605 votes or about 3,000 more than his Liberal challenger.

In 2019, he received just over 26,000 votes, but support plummetted by more than 7,000 in 2021, leading to his electoral defeat. His Liberal counterpart, Paul Chiang, earned nearly 22,000 votes — only 1,500 more votes than the previous Liberal candidate. 

Chiang launched an intense campaign emphasizing his strong local roots in the riding and his decades of work as a police officer, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visiting the riding several times. 

As an elected official, Chiang has shown no evidence of favouritism to China, having condemned Beijing for its treatment of the Muslim Uyghurs last month.

On the other hand, his caucus colleague, MP Han Dong, has twice missed Parliamentary votes declaring China's treatment of Uyghurs a genocide. He also voted against two other motions that denounced China's foreign policy and called on Canada to hasten its decision on Huawei within 30 days.

In BC, former Conservative MP Alice Wong won the seat for Richmond Centre in 2015 with more than 17,000 votes and in 2019 with more than 19,000 votes. However, her vote count sank by almost 6,000 votes to 13,440 in 2021, and she lost to her Liberal counterpart, who only gained 2,000 votes.

Interestingly, several other ridings across Toronto and Vancouver with large Chinese Canadian populations observed noticeable declines in Conservative support that did not translate into Liberal gains.

However, former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu believes a coordinated campaign from Beijing cost him his seat in the 2021 federal election.

Chiu lost his Steveston-Richmond East riding after 4,400 fewer Conservative supporters voted for him in 2021 than in 2019 — of which nearly half translated into Liberal votes.

The lame-duck MP claims his private member's bill to establish a foreign-agent registry provoked China's network in Canada to ensure he did not win in his re-election bid.

"When I [went] door knocking…there have been supporters of mine who just shut the door in my face," said Chiu. "There [was] so much hatred that I sense."

DisinfoWatch, a foreign disinformation monitoring watchdog, also warned of a coordinated campaign against the Conservatives in 2021. Experts said the campaigns stemmed from WeChat, a Chinese instant messaging service.

However, Chiu also said during his electoral defeat, "It's understandable, right in the middle of the pandemic, that people not only would not open their door, let alone go out to the ballot and vote."

Though Chiu's riding has been hotly contested in previous elections — as he won narrowly in 2019 after losing in 2015 — he remains convinced that budding foreign interference between the 2019 and 2021 elections contributed to his electoral defeat as most of the news about the Liberals during that time was negative.

"Between 2015 and 2019, there are four years. Between 2019 and 2021, there are 22 months, and all of that [time] it's all pandemic and full of government scandals," said Chiu.

Andrew Enns, vice president of the polling firm Léger, called these ridings an anomaly because the Conservative vote declined between 2019 and 2021, despite overall increases across Ontario and BC. 

Enns attributes several factors to the results in the ridings mentioned above.

He said it is also possible Chinese Canadians soured on the Conservatives. While there was evidence of misinformation about the party's view of China, the party's then leader, Erin O'Toole, generally favoured a more hawkish stance with the country.

"You've got to look at other factors, [including] the quality of the candidate," said Enns.

"Did something happen to that local candidate in the campaign?" he posed. "I don't have any answers to that. But it is certainly an unusual trend."

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