Trudeau’s top aide to face MPs’ questions today about China’s election meddling | CBC News

Katie Telford, chief of staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will testify before a parliamentary committee later today on what she knew — or didn’t — about the extent of the Chinese government’s interference in Canada’s past two elections.

Telford, who has served as the prime minister’s chief of staff since he won power back in 2015, will appear before the procedure and House affairs committee (PROC) starting at roughly 12 p.m. ET. CBC News will carry her appearance live.

Her testimony comes at a time of intense public and political interest in foreign election interference.

The Globe and Mail has published reports alleging that Beijing tried to ensure the Liberals won a minority government in the last general election and worked to defeat Conservative candidates who were critical of China.

Global News reported last fall that in 2019, intelligence officials told Trudeau that China’s consulate in Toronto had floated cash to at least 11 federal election candidates “and numerous Beijing operatives” who worked as campaign staffers.

Trudeau has said repeatedly he was never briefed about federal candidates receiving money from China. His national security and intelligence adviser, Jody Thomas, has also gone on record saying she’s seen no evidence that any candidates in the 2019 federal election were influenced by financing from the Chinese government.

The Globe and Mail and Global stories are based mainly on confidential sources and intelligence documents.

Expert listening for ‘extent and timing’ of briefings

MPs are expected to grill Telford today about what she was briefed on and what she passed on to the prime minister. 

On Thursday, Prime Minister Trudeau said again that his government takes the threat of foreign interference in elections seriously and cited measures taken, including the establishment of an interference monitoring committee.

“Conversations with my chief of staff, Katie Telford, on this subject, I have had many of them, many of them over long periods of time,” Trudeau told reporters in Regina.

“We have been talking about foreign interference for years.” 

The Prime Minister’s Office has signalled already that Telford won’t be able to answer questions about sensitive intelligence matters.

She will, however, be able to discuss the “extent and the timing” of briefings given to the prime minister on allegations that Beijing tried to tilt the 2019 and 2021 elections toward the Liberals, said intelligence expert Wesley Wark.

He calls that timeline “the missing piece” of the narrative.

Previously, top security officials, including Thomas, promised to give the committee a list of the briefing dates.

Han Dong celebrates with supporters while taking part in a rally in Toronto on Thursday, May 22, 2014. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The clerk of the procedure and House affairs committee told CBC News that as of Thursday afternoon, no such list had been delivered.

Telford also will be able to provide political clarity on how seriously allegations against former Liberal MP Han Dong were treated, Wark added.

“What did the PMO really know about these allegations with regard to Han Dong? What did they do about them?” he said.

Dong left the Liberal caucus last month after Global published a report alleging he advised a senior Chinese diplomat in February 2021 that Beijing should hold off on freeing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians being held by China at the time.

Dong has denied the allegation and his lawyers have served Global News with a notice of libel.

Wark also said Telford might be able to say whether two of the bodies the Liberals have asked to examine the allegations — the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) — will be allowed to review cabinet documents as part of their investigation.

The agency that safeguards those records, the Privy Council Office (PCO), has not guaranteed either agency will get an exemption.

“What Telford can’t afford to do is just say, ‘No, I can’t talk about that,'” Wark said. “You know, she may have to in some instances but I think that she knows that, coming before the committee, she’s going to have to be able to provide something of substance.”

Conservative MPs pushed for Telford to testify

Liberal MPs on the committee tried to prevent today’s committee appearance from happening. They filibustered the House of Commons for hours, over the span of a heated two weeks, to stall a vote calling her to appear.

The logjam was cleared when the Prime Minister’s Office announced last month that she would appear before the committee.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper speaks to members of the media during a break at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) regarding foreign election interference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, March 1, 2023.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper speaks to members of the media during a break in the standing committee on procedure and House affairs (PROC) hearings on foreign election interference in Ottawa on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (Spencer Colby/Canadian Press)

Committee member and Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who brought forward the motion to call her as a witness, has called her a “critical witness to get to the heart of the scandal.”

“She’s the second most powerful person in this government, arguably. But not only that, she played an integral role in the 2019 and 2021 election campaigns on behalf of the Liberal Party,” he said last month.

An independent panel tasked with overseeing the 2021 election did detect attempts at interference but concluded that foreign meddling did not affect the outcome.

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