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A journalist whose reporting helped raise concerns about possible Chinese meddling in Canadian democracy told a committee of MPs on June 20 that he stands by his work.
Sam Cooper, who recently left Global News to start his own online news site, told MPs that other countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, have faced similar disclosures about Chinese attempts to influence elections, and have followed up with laws designed to counter foreign interference.
But in Canada, said Cooper, that has not happened.
“Canada is facing the same, or worse threat, and most concerning, our diaspora community members—many of them have stated openly they feel they are not protected,” he told MPs on the Procedure and House Affairs committee.
“Most concerning to me more than any is that Canadians are under fear that they cannot speak openly about matters, because a growing power from a foreign state is impacting lives in Canada,” he said.
Cooper said he stands by his reporting that there is evidence of efforts to influence both the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
“So, with regards to your question—did Beijing fund candidates—it’s my understanding they funded a network, which is directed to support Beijing’s preferred candidates,” he said.
Conservative MP Luc Berthold asked in French what Cooper thought about the federal government’s reaction to the stories about possible Chinese interference.
“The existence of what you confirmed has indeed been proven to be true. The Chinese police stations here, we learned that [MPs] Michael Chong, Erin O’Toole, Jenny Kwan have also been intimidated … but it would seem that the ministers and the prime minister have ignored all of this,” said Berthold.
Cooper said he agrees with calls for a public inquiry because it will clear the air.
“A public inquiry will remove the partisan bickering, the point-scoring on either side,” said Cooper. “There will be an independent, deep, rigorous public study of not only what happened, but what can we learn from Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand, and other nations, by the way, that are taking this very seriously.”
Some of Cooper’s work was questioned by Liberal MPs on the committee. Ryan Turnbull pointed out that the government’s now-resigned special rapporteur on election interference, former Governor General David Johnston, raised questions about some of Cooper’s stories.
“How could you with any degree of journalistic integrity publish an article that is surely just based on unfounded allegations?” asked Turnbull.
“The story stands,” replied Cooper. “I will not speak to identification of sources. I will not speak to editorial processes, and I want the member to remember I will not speak to legal processes surrounding this story.”
That line of questioning was also picked up later by Liberal MP Ruby Sahota.
“Do you think you possibly could have gotten it wrong?” she asked.
“No. The story stands,” replied Cooper. And later he added, “The stories starting in November 2022 meet the highest standards of public interest and public interest reporting.”
Cooper added he was warned in 2021 that his reporting was drawing attention.
“I myself, a journalist, received a CSIS defensive threat brief in 2021, the same time period where other MPs we’ve learned were being subject of disinformation in WeChat channels,” said Cooper.
The former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) also testified before MPs.
Ward Elcock was asked why information about possible foreign interference seemed to get lost within the federal government.
“We’re not a country that has much concern about national security,” Elcock replied. “Most Canadians have very little concern about national security and little interest … it’s not surprising, then. Sometimes the flow of information beyond the intelligence agency is not as good as it should be if people have no interest,” he said, adding what might need to change is for Canadians themselves to start becoming more concerned about national security.
“If Canadians demand that people pay attention to those issues, then there will inevitably be more discussion of them and we will perhaps arrive at a place that most of our allies arrived at years ago,” said Elcock.
But while Elcock seemed concerned about Canadian attitudes, he cautioned there is no magic solution to foreign interference.
“Foreign interference is a very large problem,” he said.
“Action sounds simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. For example, a [foreign interference] registry makes a great deal of sense … [but] a lot of the problems of foreign interference will not be solved by a registry,” he said.
“The reality is that the things that we need to do are broader than simply registries … we need more counterintelligence work, because you need to identify all of the activities, which means more funding probably for CSIS,” he said.
In response to questions from MPs, Cooper said he believes people who have passed on information about foreign interference are motivated by the desire to see action.
“There are whistleblowers that don’t believe that the adequate laws are in place to investigate and prosecute foreign interference,” said Cooper.