Threat of election interference likely higher now than in 2019: LeBlanc

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Canadians should “assume” the threat of foreign interference likely will be higher in the next general election than it was in 2019, said President of the Queen’s Privy Council Dominic LeBlanc.

“In the next general election in Canada, I think we should just assume that the threat environment and the threat context has increased since our last election,” he told a virtual news conference about safeguarding elections today.

“COVID-19, as we’ve said during this conversation, has given I think energy to different state actors and non-state actors who want to disrupt and sow discord and divide societies or agitate racism and hatred. We’ve seen very ugly examples of that around the world, so we shouldn’t assume those practices should go away during an electoral cycle.”

His comments come the same week the Canadian Security Intelligence Service reported the pandemic has led to the highest level of foreign espionage and foreign interference directed at Canadian targets since the end of the Cold War.

WATCH | Online threats to fair elections have increased since 2019, says federal minister

President of the Privy Council Dominic LeBlanc spoke with reporters Wednesday about what could happen in the next election. 1:53

The spy agency’s assessment said China, Russia, and other foreign states continued to gather political, economic and military information in Canada last year.

LeBlanc, whose mandate includes maintaining the security of Canada’s elections, said the briefings he’s received so far suggest malicious activity is likely to intensify during a heated campaign.

“People have a bigger megaphone as the election is rolling and therefore the temptation from these malevolent actors, I think, will increase,” he said.

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LeBlanc said the government will continue to support the election warning system it put in place ahead of the 2019 vote. The “critical election incident public protocol panel,” made up of five senior bureaucrats, was created to alert the public to acts of election interference during the campaign period. 

Interference happened in 2019 and continues: NSICOP 

The Privy Council Office said the panel did observe suspicious activities during the 2019 election but those activities never reached a level of seriousness that would have required the panel to go public.

LeBlanc’s caucus colleague David McGuinty, who chairs the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, said earlier this week that the government should expand the mandate of that warning panel to include old-school espionage techniques.

“What does that mean? That means volunteers signing up to work in campaign offices or campaign settings. It means individuals joining political parties and attending nomination meetings in order to attempt to exert influence. Usually, the motivation is directed in some way by a foreign government,” McGuinty told CBC News.

“In 2019 we saw that foreign interference — the idea that foreign states were actively trying to interfere in Canadian politics, including electoral processes —  was a certainty. It’s happening and was happening.”

LeBlanc was joined by Microsoft president Brad Smith and Karen Donfried of the Alliance for Securing Democracy to promote a paper titled “Multi-Stakeholder Insights: A Compendium on Countering Election Interference”.

The document comes out of the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, a 2018 declaration that calls for states, private sector and civil society organizations to work together on cyber security and counter-disinformation efforts.

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