Morris Rosenberg — a former public servant who authored the report released this week on attempts to interfere in the 2021 federal election — says the option of a public inquiry should be “on the table.”
Rosenberg told CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos in an interview airing Sunday, his report is not the final word on foreign election interference, but rather a piece of the puzzle in studying the issue.
While Rosenberg’s report this week concluded there were interference attempts in the 2021 election, it also stated a panel designed to flag interference “did not detect foreign interference that threatened Canada’s ability to have free and fair elections.”
But amid allegations of foreign election interference in recent media reports, Opposition MPs on a Parliamentary committee voted this week on a motion to call on the federal government to hold a national public inquiry.
Top federal officials told the Procedure and House Affairs Committee last week that the last two federal elections were not compromised by foreign actors, nor were there spikes in interference during those campaigns.
Rosenberg said he’s been following the debate on whether or not to hold an inquiry, and he thinks regardless of the final word on that issue, it’s important the government continue to pursue mechanisms to combat foreign interference.
“But I would also say that it’s important to think through what is the scope of the public inquiry, and I wouldn’t want the public inquiry to be an excuse not to continue to do the forward-looking work that needs to be done to deal with the threat, which is changing,” he said.
Rosenberg also answered questions from Kapelos about a donation from a Chinese businessman to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation seven years ago while he was CEO of that organization.
Reports of the donation have led to criticisms from some elected officials, including Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, who said this week Rosenberg has a “deficit of credibility.”
Rosenberg said if he were in the situation today, he would not have accepted the donation.
“I think there would have been a different decision made for sure,” he said.
The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation announced this week it would be refunding the $200,000 donation.
This transcript of Rosenberg’s interview with Vassy Kapelos for Sunday’s episode of CTV’s Question Period has been edited for length and clarity.
Vassy Kapelos: I wanted to start on what has formed the substance of some of the criticism of your report, and you yourself from the Opposition, involving your time at the Trudeau Foundation. You headed up that foundation during the time that a Chinese businessman who has ties to the Chinese government made a $200,000 donation. This week the foundation returned that donation. The leader of the Bloc Quebecois, for example, says because of your work there, because of that involvement, you have a deficiency of credibility. How do you respond to that?
Morris Rosenberg: “I have a number of things to say about it. First of all, I’d say I have worked in a 34-year career in government that was split between working for Liberal governments and Conservative governments. I was a deputy minister for 17 years, under first the Liberals and then the Conservatives. The last seven years of my career at health and foreign affairs were under the Harper government, and I’ve never belonged to a political party, I’m kind of what the Americans would call an independent.
You have to understand the Trudeau Foundation is named after Pierre Elliot Trudeau, but it is an independent, non-partisan body, and it’s had on its board of directors, and as part of its membership, people from all political stripes: Liberals, NDP, and Conservatives. Because it’s an independent body, the way I saw my role was to take decisions on programming and decisions on fundraising that were the foundation’s decisions, that didn’t consult with the Government of Canada at all. And when I got there, there already had been discussions with these two Chinese businessmen and with the University of Montreal about a donation that would be split about 80/20: 80 per cent to the University of Montreal and 20 per cent to the foundation. And, you know, at that point, I had no reason to think that there was anything untoward about it. These donations were for putting on conferences. We were also aware that one of these businessmen had also given a donation to the University of Toronto medical school a little while earlier.
When the announcement was made, it was made without any coordination with the federal government. Now, the Globe and Mail published a report this week that a source from CSIS says that there had been information that they had, there were conversations between a Chinese consular official and one of these businessmen, and the Chinese consular official saying that he ought to donate to the Trudeau Foundation. I had never heard of that, it was first that I read of it (in the Globe and Mail). We were never informed, if anybody had any information that there was something untoward about this, I wasn’t informed about it.
The other thing I would say is that you have to look a little bit at the historical context. So put yourself back in 2015-2016, when the Canadian attitude about the relationship with China was very different, very hopeful, and much more positive and trusting. There were gifts to educational institutions, there were collaborations between Canadian research institutions and Chinese institutions. If you fast-forward to the last couple of years, there’s been a kind of steady deterioration in that relationship for a number of issues: the failure to get a free trade agreement, what happened with the hostage diplomacy and the two Michaels, and other things that I think have caused Canadians to be warier, more skeptical about the motivation of the Chinese government. Also consider that the hold that the Chinese Communist Party has on its citizens is not like the relationship between citizens and government in this country. So had we been there today, would the same thing have happened? I doubt it.
Kapelos: With the information we have now, and what’s transpired in the years since, do you think you would have made a different decision?
Rosenberg: “I think I would have. I think there would have been a different decision made for sure.”
Kapelos: And do you think the foundation made the right decision this week in returning that money?
Rosenberg: “You’d have to ask the foundation. It sounds like the right decision, but I have not been privy to their decision making on this.”
Kapelos: Before I move on to the report, do you understand the criticism or the timing of this, as it all bleeds together? A month ago if this happened, your report was released, it wouldn’t be against the backdrop of everything people have read in The Globe and Mail in the last two weeks. Do you understand how your credibility is called into question, or the report’s credibility, based on the kinds of stuff people have been reading?
Rosenberg: “Yeah, I understand, but I’d go back and reiterate again: I worked for that foundation for four years, I worked there on the assumption that although it was named for Pierre Elliott Trudeau, it’s not part of the government. It is an independent, non-partisan foundation. I have always conducted myself in a non-partisan way and that’s how I conducted myself there.
And then you’re looking at a donation, at that time, for conferences, not a donation that on its face had anything to do with politics. Maybe we were naive back then, but I think and then when I was offered this contract by the Privy Council Office in the summer to look at one particular and quite technical aspect of preparation for elections, I didn’t think there was an issue.
Kapelos: Let’s get to what you were looking at there. It is a very specific review that you conducted on the work of the panel that essentially is supposed to tell Canadians: ‘hey, there is a problem with interference, and it’s a problem because it’s compromised the integrity of the election’. They haven’t done so because they didn’t feel that was the case. And you reiterated that’s the conclusion they arrived at through your report. And yet Canadians right now, overwhelmingly, two polls this week have shown us — including one done for CTV News from Nanos Research — Canadians are really worried about what they’re reading, despite the conclusion that panel reached, which was, as I said, communicated through your report. Are you sympathetic to those worries right now?
Rosenberg: “You know, given the information that’s been in the media in the last couple of weeks — information that I wasn’t privy to when I was doing my report — and I can’t comment on the veracity of the information, it is leaked information, and I don’t know if we’re ever going to get to the bottom of that, but I understand the concerns of Canadians. I guess the irony is that one of the goals of foreign interference is to undermine the confidence of Canadians in our democratic institutions, and that seems to have succeeded. Confidence of Canadians in our democratic institutions, if you look at the Angus Reid poll, and you mentioned there’s a Nanos poll out also, that has somewhere between two thirds and 70 per cent of people worried about this, it raises an issue, and the issue is going to have to be addressed in some way.
Kapelos: When you say “in some way,” the government has pointed to mechanisms already in place as a means of doing that, including the conclusions as telegraphed through your report that the integrity of the election was not compromised in 2021, or the one before it in 2019 through a different report. Do you see a purpose for something that goes beyond that?
Rosenberg: “Yeah, I mean, I think at this point, consideration needs to be given to doing something else. I’ve been out of the country, but I have been reading, there has been a lot of debate among people that I know well, some of whom are advocating very strongly for a public inquiry, some of whom are saying that a public inquiry actually will not do the trick. Those who are against the public inquiry are saying that a public inquiry takes a long time to get started, it takes a long time before it’ll be wrapped up, it’ll be likely after the next election that something like that is finalized, and recommendations are out. And then it takes a number of years to implement recommendations. And then, of course, there’s the problem of how to deal with sensitive national security, classified information that can’t be treated in a public way, and would reduce the ability for the public to understand what’s going on.
Now, that’s not a completely insurmountable problem. There have been other precedents in the past of bringing in respected, retired judges who have security clearances, who could at least get the documents even if they didn’t fully explain what they were. So it’s an option that I think needs to be on the table.
But I would also say that it’s important to think through what is the scope of the public inquiry, and I wouldn’t want the public inquiry to be an excuse not to continue to do the forward-looking work that needs to be done to deal with the threat, which is changing. The situation is very different today than it was in 2019 when the protocol was put in place. The protocol was put in place, I think, in reaction, to a large extent, to what happened in the United States in 2016, with wide scale Russian interference. The focus was around the actual election period, and the panel of non-partisan public servants is meant to serve during the caretaker period. What we heard from CSIS and the Canadian security establishment is that some of the activities that are undertaken by foreign governments in attempting to influence events in Canada are not simply taking place during the writ period.
If you’re talking about threatening diaspora communities, or trying to secure people to act as proxies, for foreign governments, those things are taking place long before elections occur. The focus can’t simply be on the caretaker period. It needs to be an all-inclusive approach of vigilance all the time.
Now, the government has put in place in 2019 with some amendments, a plan to protect Canadian democracy that has other elements to it than just the protocol, including better education of the media and of citizens, shoring up our cyber defenses, engaging more with civil society actors, engaging with social media companies. And I think that’s all good, but I think just as the protocol is subject to a regular review after each election, each of those elements really needs to be subject to a regular review after every election as well. Because the game keeps evolving: what the threat is today is not necessarily going to be what the threat looks like tomorrow. The threat actors today will be different than those tomorrow. And I would add that the issue of artificial intelligence, which is coming on very quickly, is going to complicate that a whole lot.
Kapelos: I sense from what I’m hearing from you, and if I’m reading between the lines, you do think that there are other things the government could be doing, could be pursuing right now, to combat the threat of interference.
Rosenberg: “Yes, I think it has to, and I don’t think — whatever happens with whether there’s a public inquiry or not — it should not take away from the sense of urgency that the government should have about continuing to work on this.
And I’d mentioned one other thing. This is perhaps a bit out of left field, but not really. There were two studies done this past year, one by CIGI, the Canadian Centre for International Governance Innovation, and by the University of Ottawa, at the school of Public and International Affairs on national security. Both studies said we have had a kind of a charmed life in Canada. We have only one border, we have oceans on all sides, and we haven’t taken national security all that seriously. The world is changing significantly. Election interference is one element of that, but it’s time, I think, for governments in Canada to expend more political capital and more resources on this issue, and in particular, in relation to the issue of election interference.
I saw that the government is now looking at the possibility of a foreign influence registry, as the Americans and the Australians have done. And I also think there have been calls for this in both of these reports, to do a review of the CSIS Act to ensure that the mechanisms are in place to deal with an evolving set of threats.
Kapelos: If I could leave our conversation on this: is it fair to say you don’t think your report is the final word on this?
Rosenberg: “The final word? No. I mean, I think my report is dealing with an aspect of this. It’s dealing with the protocol. If you look at the recommendations in my report, I make 16 recommendations that deal with everything from better communications, earlier communications, to improvements to the composition of the panel, the preparedness of the panel, its ability to work with civil society actors, better relations with political parties, briefings for parliamentarians, even if they’re non-classified, and not just for Canadian federal parliamentarians, but for provincial representatives and municipal council members, because interference is happening all over the place. So, as I say, there are a bunch of recommendations about the protocol, including some recommendations around the threshold, and whether the threshold for having an announcement can be clarified, because there is a bit of confusion in there. There seem to be kind of three separate sets of criteria that don’t all jive, one of them being you have to show impact. Well, it’s almost impossible to show impact on something like this. And I think we need to pull back a little bit and maybe look at impact or potential impact as one factor, but that isn’t necessarily determinative.
The other issue, which I think has gotten a lot of attention, is whether there should be an opportunity for an announcement for interference that isn’t going to affect the entire election, but that may have an impact on a particular riding or on a particular ethnic community, for example. I don’t make a recommendation on this, so much as a recommendation to study it, because if this happens, and you’ve got members of an ethnic community that are being fed disinformation, or they’re being intimidated into not voting, well, they’re losing their democratic franchise, and I think a serious look has to be had at that.
There are people on the other side of this who would say when the protocol was announced, it was very clear that it was a very, very high threshold. The minister in 2019, who announced that at the time, said we hope it will never have to be used, and there’s a concern that the very announcement itself could have the unintended effect of affecting confidence in the election. So this is a discussion that has to take place. I didn’t feel it was my place to make a firm recommendation on this, because I think this will need to be discussed with the political parties and with the security agencies. I think if there is going to be what I would call a below-the-threshold announcement for smaller incursions, it probably shouldn’t be the panel that makes the announcement, it probably should be the security agencies, and it’s not been the habit of Canadian security agencies to do that.
Kapelos: No, it has not. Not yet anyway. Okay. Thank you very much, Mr. Rosenberg, pleasure to have you here.
Rosenberg: “Thank you.”
With files from CTV’s Question Period Senior Producer Stephanie Ha and CTVNews.ca’s Senior Digital Parliamentary Reporter Rachel Aiello