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Foreign interference inquiry: Han Dong sought support from international students

OTTAWA — Former Liberal Han Dong met with international students from China and encouraged them to register as Liberal members during his nomination race in 2019 — but the MP didn't mention that to an ongoing federal inquiry into foreign meddling unt
Han Dong appears as a witness at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Former Liberal Han Dong met with international students from China and encouraged them to register as Liberal members during his nomination race in 2019 — but the MP didn't mention that to an ongoing federal inquiry into foreign meddling until he took the stand Tuesday. 

The revelation came to light as Dong testified at a public hearing and responded to unsubstantiated allegations that China tampered with Dong's nomination battle by coercing international students.

Dong left the Liberal caucus following media reports of allegations that he willingly participated in Chinese meddling and won his seat in 2019 with Beijing's help. 

He denied the claims and countered with legal action against Global News and its parent company, Corus Entertainment.

The reports alleged that Chinese international students with fake addresses had been bused into the riding and coerced to vote for Dong's nomination to avoid losing their student visas.

The allegations also appear in a declassified summary of unconfirmed government intelligence that was released as part of the federal inquiry. 

"Intelligence reported after the election indicated that veiled threats were issued by the (People's Republic of China) Consulate to the Chinese international students," the summary reads.

That intelligence implied that "their student visas would be in jeopardy and that there could be consequences for their families back in the PRC if they did not support Han Dong."

Special rapporteur David Johnston found last May that there were "irregularities" observed with Dong's nomination and "well-grounded suspicion" they were tied to China's Toronto consulate, but that Dong was not aware of such issues.

It turned out Dong did meet with international students from a private school called NOIC Academy during his nomination battle at their residence at Seneca College, he confirmed for the commission Tuesday. 

He encouraged the students, who mostly spoke Mandarin, to volunteer for his campaign and vote in his nomination battle, he said.

He had not mentioned the meeting to inquiry lawyers when they interviewed him in February. 

Dong also neglected to mention that a busload of international students showed up to vote for his nomination — though he said he didn't see it himself. He said he was told about the bus and presumed it had been organized by the school itself. 

"I didn't pay attention to busing international students because ... I didn't understand it as an irregularity," he said. 

Dong's campaign manager, Ted Lojko, testified that he didn't know anything about the busload of students.

The commission lawyer grilled Dong about why he failed to come forward with the information until Monday, but the now-independent MP said his wife reminded him about it only after his interview with the commission. 

He decided to let the commission know about the additional information after a recent discussion with his lawyer, he said.

"It was a short period of time for the campaign and I was reaching out to as many groups as I can," Dong testified. 

It's not illegal for international students to vote in Liberal nominations, as long as they can prove they live in the riding. Dong denied any knowledge of the students using falsified documents to vote in the nomination. 

"I would be the first one condemning it. I think it's an insult to our democratic system," he said. 

The hearings are part of the inquiry's work examining possible foreign interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two general elections.

Earlier in the day, the The Liberal party's national director testified that the party doesn't consider nomination races to be particularly vulnerable to foreign interference, despite the irregularities surrounding Dong's nomination. 

Azam Ishmael denied any irregularities during the nomination process, even though Johnston's findings were to the contrary.

"The only thing that catches me as a bit peculiar is that it was organized by the school, given that it was a partisan political event," Ishmael told the commission, commenting on the international students' participation in the race.

Ishmael defended the Liberal nomination rules and processes as being generally effective at weeding out meddling efforts, and said an anonymous ballot stymies foreign attempts at coercion.

Dong was also questioned about a 2021 conversation he had with a Chinese consular official about the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in the context of China-Canada relations.

A summary of declassified and unsubstantiated intelligence suggests Dong told the Chinese official that if China was to release the "two Michaels," opposition parties would view it as proof that a hardline Canadian approach to China worked. 

Dong said he doesn't remember the conversation, and asserted the particular allegation doesn't make sense. 

"Whenever I talked about the two Michaels, I'd try to show that early release of the two Michaels is good for the relationship between countries," Dong testified.

In his final report, Johnston concluded that Dong did not advocate for the prolonged detention of the two Canadians. 

Foreign interference wasn't exactly top of mind for parties during the last two elections, the commission heard Tuesday.

All parties were offered briefings by the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force, but most representatives said the briefings included little information about specific threats.

"We went through this whole process to get security clearance, we had these meetings with these very high-level people in all of these agencies," said NDP national director Anne McGrath, who was designated by her party to receive briefings from the task force.

"It still felt very much to me like a bit of a pro forma, box-checking exercise."

At one point, McGrath was pressed on whether NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had faced death threats after September 2023, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly linked India to that summer's shooting death of a Sikh activist. 

McGrath would not say if that was the case. But she did acknowledge that some in the Sikh community have expressed fear since 2017, when Singh became leader, that openly supporting the NDP would bring reprisals from India.

That apprehension also extends to some members of the party's own staff, she added. 

"I believe that, for several diaspora groups, there are concerns about the ramifications of involvement in political activity in Canada."

The Conservative campaign shared examples of possible interference in 13 ridings after the 2021 election, said Walied Soliman, the campaign chair for former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole. 

But he said he didn't feel those concerns were taken seriously. 

"We were being managed, as opposed to folks taking seriously what were quite concerning issues," he told the commission. 

Former national security adviser Jody Thomas testified in March 2023 that the government provided a response to Soliman's concerns, and nothing was found to suggest that "the ridings that he was concerned about were affected by attempts at foreign interference."

The commission of inquiry, led by Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue, expects to hear testimony from more than 40 people including community members, political party representatives and federal election officials.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, members of his cabinet and various senior government officials are also slated to appear at the hearings, which are set to conclude April 10.

An initial report of findings from the commission is due May 3.

The inquiry will then shift to broader policy issues, looking at the government's ability to detect, deter and counter foreign interference. A final report is expected by the end of the year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2024.

Laura Osman and Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said it was last week when former national security adviser Jody Thomas testified.