Steveston-Richmond East Liberal MP Parm Bains defended himself on two counts Friday after a House of Commons committee met to study Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interference in federal elections.
Bains is a member of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. One of the four in-person witnesses was Kenny Chiu, the Conservative incumbent that Bains upset in the 2021 election.
(This article was updated Monday, April 3 to include additional information and reporting.)
Chiu lost in a race marred by a disinformation campaign on WeChat and in Chinese state media that falsely claimed his private member’s bill for a U.S.-style registry of foreign agents would make Chinese-Canadians second-class citizens. In February, The Globe and Mail quoted from a leaked report by Canada’s spy agency that said Chinese diplomat Tong Xiaoling meddled in favour of Bains.
After the meeting, a CBC reporter asked Bains whether his attendance was a conflict of interest.
“There’s no conflict at all,” said Bains, who walked briskly and refused to stop because he said he had a plane to catch.
“Do you believe you won because of foreign influence?” asked the reporter, as Bains descended a set of stairs.
“Nope, not at all,” Bains said. “Fair and square.”
During the hearing, Bloc Quebecois member Rene Villemure (Trois Rivieres) asked Chiu if he believed Bains had an advantage in the snap 2021 election.
“Yes, that he is the beneficiary of the disinformation,” Chiu answered.
“Do you believe that it's a conflict of interest that your opponent is here today?” Villemure asked.
Replied Chiu: “That is a question that I think it's better answered by my opponent, who is sitting here in the meeting.”
Last September, a year after the election, Chiu candidly told a reporter that Bains was a “puppet these pro-CCP elements are using now.” He was reacting to a video that showed Bains addressing supporters of the Chinese Canadians Goto Vote Association in Steveston’s Garry Point Park before election day. Among them were two senior members of local organizations connected to the CCP’s United Front propaganda and influence program. Bains, through a spokesperson, said he did not know the men.
When he had the floor in the hearing, Bains did not ask Chiu a question. He indirectly addressed the 2021 election controversy in the preamble to a question for a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) officer about the international extent of foreign interference operations.
“As candidates, we're all victims of misinformation and disinformation when we're in an election,” Bains said. “There were campaigns against me that I was going to legalize hard drugs, and things of that nature.”
Bains pointed to his riding’s ethnic diversity, which not only includes immigrants from Mainland China, but Hong Kong, Philippines and South Asian countries.
“We actually have a five-kilometre corridor in the city. It's called the Highway to Heaven, and it's every religious institution, about 28 of them, all along this corridor,” Bains said. “So it's a very, very mixed community that I've lived in my whole life.”
During the election campaign, Bains did interviews with Chinese-language media outlets in which he expressed opposition to the Chiu-proposed foreign agents registry, because he called it “discriminatory.”
During his committee testimony, Chiu recounted the themes of disinformation that spread against him during the election.
“In 2021, a complete mischaracterization of my proposed establishment of a foreign influence registry was circulated in WeChat and WhatsApp groups, that it is ‘anti-Chinese’ or a ‘pretext of a future Chinese internment effort,’ or that, if elected prime minister, the ‘anti-Chinese Erin O’Toole,' then-Conservative leader, will ban WeChat, jeopardizing the only familiar familial or business link they solely rely on,” Chiu testified. "Their goal is twofold: to install decision-makers that they have access to or control of, or to remove those that stand against their efforts — ‘vocal detractors,’ if you will. To be clear, a beneficiary of these efforts does not necessarily imply collusion.”
Liberal members Soroya Martinez Ferrada (Hochelaga) and Greg Fergus (Hull-Aylmer), the parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asked Chiu whether foreign interference was the deciding factor. They suggested Richmond voters simply preferred a left-leaning government in 2021.
Chiu pointed to the 3,070-person drop in overall turnout, and 4,412 fewer Conservative voters, as evidence of passive voter suppression.
“My opponent, the one who actually took the riding, had increased the support by a mere 1,800 votes, that is a significant discrepancy,” Chiu said. “In other words, there are many Conservative supporters who actually stayed at home.”
Afterward, Chiu told a media scrum that he would feel much better if the Liberal government was moving forward on legislation rather than only beginning consultations on a registry of foreign agents.
“It’s time for us to take action, and taking the action will also send out a correct message that that we not only are watching as a country, but we are willing to take the necessary steps to protect ourselves,” Chiu said. “Unfortunately, the inaction itself, it's also sending another signal that we will continue to defer and procrastinate.”
Meanwhile, Michel Juneau-Katsuya, former chief of the CSIS Asia-Pacific unit, told the committee that successive Canadian governments, for more than 30 years, were warned of Chinese government infiltration and each chose to ignore the threat.
“Every government took decisions that are questionable about China and can only be explained by interference exercises from within,” Juneau-Katsuya testified. “Every government let their decision process [be] manipulated by two reasons: partisanship and agents of influence succeeding in controlling the message. Every prime minister and/or their staff chose to ignore the seriousness of the threat. Not only the sitting government has been compromised, but all political parties also have been compromised at one point or another. The inaction of the federal government led to attack on many municipal and provincial governments. Ultimately, every government has been part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
Juneau-Katsuya suggested banning foreign citizens from nominating candidates and requiring every candidate to sign a sworn declaration that they are not acting on behalf of a foreign government or entity.
“This form will clearly warn of the possible criminal procedures in case of intentional deception,” he said. “Similar process must be established for all political staff and volunteers during the hiring process.”
This article was updated Monday, April 3 to include additional information and reporting.