(Ottawa) The context in which the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation accepted the gift of a Chinese billionaire was not the same as today, estimates its former director general, Morris Rosenberg, who is sorry for the shading that this case does to its report on foreign interference. Because the stakes are serious, and since an election can occur at any time, you have to be on a war footing to fight an enemy who will not necessarily be the same.
On the other end of the line, the man lists his service – Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Health under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, before that Deputy Minister of Justice under Jean Chrétien’s Liberals, between other functions – as evidence of his integrity, before answering the $200,000 question.
This is the amount of the check signed to the order of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation by a businessman close to Beijing, Zhang Bin, when Morris Rosenberg was the boss. The donation made headlines in 20161but resurfaced last week when the Globe and Mail reported that the contribution was part of an attempted interference.
“I was never informed of this, I don’t even know if it’s true. I will not comment on leaked information that I know nothing about, ”he says. What he wants to discuss at greater length, however, is the “historical context” of Sino-Canadian ties in times not even so distant.
In 2015-2016, under Justin Trudeau, the relationship with China was more positive, but it was also true for Canadian institutions, which wanted to collaborate with Beijing in research, in the training of judges, in student exchanges. There was this notion that we were helping with a transition to a liberal democracy.
“Would I have done the same today? I am sure that the checks would have been much more diligent. Trust has eroded. Times have changed,” says the former senior official.
A relationship with undermined credibility
Today, we find ourselves with a foundation that has chosen to return the $200,000.
We also find ourselves with a report on foreign interference whose credibility has been damaged, in particular by the leader of the Bloc Québécois, Yves-François Blanchet, to the chagrin of its author.
“Yes, it’s frustrating. I think there’s a larger political context, but yes, it’s frustrating,” admits Rosenberg.
On the day of the filing of the document he gave birth to, the Conservative Party joined its voice to those of the Bloc and New Democrats, who were calling for a public and independent inquiry into China’s interference in the electoral process.
The Prime Minister has since announced that it will be up to an independent rapporteur to advise him on the relevance of such an exercise. But whatever the process, it should not interfere with ongoing government projects, says Morris Rosenberg.
“I don’t want us to have to wait three years to get results,” he says, without however being against the idea of a public inquiry.
First, since the Trudeau government is in a minority, “an election can happen at any time”, but moreover, the powers which seek to sow discord do not wait for the dissolution of Parliament to prepare their weapons, he illustrates .
And that’s not to mention that the enemy may not be the same either.
I think that in the future we will have to worry in particular about Russian interference. Moscow has clear motives for trying to dissuade Canadians – and citizens of other NATO countries – from the virtues of supporting Ukraine.
“You have to be careful to wage a war of the past,” he explains.
Of naivety and luck
The report that the Liberal government had asked Morris Rosenberg to write focused on the effectiveness of the public major incident protocol for 2021. It confirmed that foreign interference had no impact on the result of the ballot.
However, there were indeed some in some constituencies, but not enough to alert the population. This is an aspect – the threshold to be reached to justify a warning – that the author of the document asks to study.
It is also necessary, in bulk, to strengthen cyber defense tools, improve communication with the public, give more resources to intelligence agencies, modernize the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act. Among others.
“I think one of our challenges is that we haven’t devoted a lot of time and attention to national security issues, regardless of the government,” Rosenberg said.
“There is a bit of naivety, but also luck: our neighbor to the south has historically been quite reliable, and otherwise the other borders are the oceans. There, the rules of the game have changed,” he warns.