Former Conservative leader says foreign interference cost Party seats

The Conservative Party identified 13 ridings in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto where alleged foreign meddling took place in the 2021 general election. It cost them "five to nine seats," said then-Tory leader Erin O'Toole.

Former Conservative leader says foreign interference cost Party seats
The Canadian Press / Sean Kilpatrick
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Former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole blames foreign interference for costing the Conservative Party “a certain number of seats” in the 2021 election.

“It is my view [that] a certain number of seats were lost, yes,” testified O’Toole before the Commission on Foreign Interference. “We knew it was happening,” he added.

Conservatives identified 13 ridings in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto where alleged foreign meddling took place. 

The Privy Council in a detailed submission to the federal government dismissed the complaints filed on September 24, 2021 — four days after the general election.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for an election on August 15, with the governing Liberals securing another four-year term on September 20.

Conservative organizers documented numerous irregularities during the election, according to Walied Soliman, then-Conservative campaign co-chair. However, they did not publicize their concerns until after the election result.

“At no time did Erin O’Toole or any member of his team try to make a Trumpian assertion that the election was lost by the Conservatives because of foreign interference,” clarified Soliman.

They suspected an ‘outside actor’ from Canada’s Chinese community negatively influenced their candidates in the identified ridings. 

But Intelligence agencies reportedly could not prove the presence of a clandestine campaign to oust incumbent Conservative MPs Kenny Chiu, Bob Saroya, and Alice Wong.

However, a federal memo dated September 13, 2021 — one week before the general election — confirmed Chinese state media slandered Conservative incumbents during the writ. 

From September 9 through 12, several WeChat news accounts peddled the false narrative that O’Toole “wants to break off relations with China.”

The Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force (SITE) penned a memo, Foreign Interference Threats, confirming Chinese slander against the Conservative Party. 

But the task force tended to downplay concerns, giving the impression “there were no concerns about foreign interference,” said O’Toole.

They “observed what may be a Chinese Communist Party information operation that aims to discourage voters from voting for the Conservative Party.” 

“Chinese Communist Party media accounts on Chinese social media platforms WeChat and Douyin, China’s equivalent of TikTok, are sharing widely a narrative that the Conservative Party platform suggests Erin O’Toole ‘almost wants to break diplomatic ties with China,’” it reads.

In June 2022, he claimed the Conservatives lost “about eight or nine seats” citing foreign meddling is to blame.

If the party had won those seats, O’Toole claimed he may have remained on as Party leader with a “more sturdy leg to stand on.” 

He ultimately walked back those comments, stating that only an election victory would have guaranteed his job security.

O’Toole also testified before the Commission on Foreign Interference that these foreign irregularities did not affect the outcome in all 338 federal ridings. Although the limited scope did not justify federal secrecy, reported Blacklock’s Reporter

“Five to nine seats,” he said. “Certainly, it was serious.”

The former Conservative leader warned the China inquiry on Wednesday that the federal government knew of ongoing foreign meddling in the democratic process.

“I think we owe it to the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Canadians it was targeted at, we owe it to them to warn them,” he testified.

“To suggest an election is fair and free from foreign interference is not accurate if some people are impacted whether or not it flipped the result in a riding or in a few ridings,” said O’Toole. “Each vote matters.”

Campaign Co-Chair Soliman said his Party never received the memo. “I do not recall any briefing of this specificity on any issue,” he said.

“Is this information consistent with the nature of the information you recall receiving?” asked Commission counsel Kate McGrann. “No,” replied Soliman.

“Would information of this nature have been useful to your Party?” asked McGrann. “Of course,” replied Soliman.

“Were you given any specific indicators you should look for?” asked Thomas Jarmyn, counsel for Erin O’Toole. “None,” replied Soliman.

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