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The foreign interference inquiry starts today with a big question — how much must it keep secret?

The independent inquiry into foreign electoral interference begins public hearings today. Its first item of business is working out what it can — and can't — talk about publicly.

The inquiry is set to hear from CSIS Director David Vigneault and Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc

Flags are placed in a row

The independent inquiry into foreign electoral interference begins public hearings today. Its first item of business is working out what it can — and can't — talk about publicly.

The inquiry — officially the "Public Inquiry into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions" — was triggered by media reports last year which, citing unnamed security sources and classified documents, accused China of interfering in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Commissioner Justice Marie-Josée Hogue has been asked to investigate the extent to which China, Russia and other nations interfered in those elections, and how information about foreign interference flowed within the federal government. Just last week, the commission asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government to share information about possible meddling in elections by India.

But before the inquiry team can dig into the core issues, it first needs to decide how it can share national security information with the public when classified documents and sources are involved.

The preliminary hearings, which run Monday to Friday, will probe "the challenges, limitations and potential adverse impacts associated with the disclosure of classified national security information and intelligence to the public."

"This is one of the biggest challenges that the Commission will face," Hogue said in a media statement last week.

The inquiry will hear this week from Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director David Vigneault and Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc, along with national security lawyers.

Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international relations at Carleton University and a former national security analyst with CSIS, said the first week will be all about setting ground rules for dealing with sensitive issues and testimony.

Despite some of the legal barriers surrounding classified information, she said, CSIS has an opportunity here to be more candid with Canadians about the threat.

"This is a very big public forum to make a very definitive statement about the situation in Canada. There is an opportunity here for the service to put its case forward," she said.

"Whether or not the service will take the opportunity to do so is questionable. They're not comfortable in these environments, just to put it mildly."

Inquiry will dig into the big picture in March

Through March, the commission will address the extent to which foreign interference occurred in past elections.

Carvin said Hogue has to create an environment where victims of foreign interference feel they can come forward without facing retaliation. CSIS says Chinese government officials have sought to threaten and intimidate Chinese Canadians and permanent residents to keep them from cooperating with the commission.

"My hope is that the victims will be heard," said Carvin. "For too long, we've looked at foreign interference as a non-Canadian problem. We've looked at this as an overseas problem, or as an issue that doesn't impact Canadians. But these are our neighbours."

The road to an inquiry has been long and contentious.

The government initially resisted opposition pressure to call an inquiry and instead asked special rapporteur on foreign interference David Johnston to investigate the issues and decide whether an inquiry was needed.

The former governor general concluded that foreign governments are attempting to influence Canadian politics but recommended against an inquiry, arguing that much of the classified information he had reviewed would need to remain secret.

Opposition parties were outraged by Johnston's conclusion. The NDP tabled a motion in the House of Commons calling for his resignation. The motion passed with the support of the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois; both of those parties had questioned Johnston's impartiality in the past.

Johnston resigned the position in June, saying his role had become too muddled in political controversy for him to continue.

Opposition MPs then argued that a public inquiry into foreign interference would be the only way to maintain Canadians' confidence in the electoral system.

Clashes over party status

The inquiry is still mired in controversy, calling into question what it can expect to achieve.

In December, Hogue turned down a plea by a coalition of human rights groups to limit the standing of three men accused of having ties to the Chinese government.

The Human Rights Coalition opposed granting full standing to independent MP Han Dong — a former Liberal MP — Markham's deputy mayor Michael Chan and Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, arguing their "possible links and support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)" disqualified them.

Hogue wrote in response that she "cannot make findings of fact or jump to conclusions before hearing the evidence." The men have denied the allegations.

Carvin said she shares the coalition's fear that the presence of the three men could undermine the inquiry's work.

"Will they be cross-examining victims of foreign interference? That's a real concern," she said.

Hogue also rejected the Conservative Party's request for full standing and instead granted them intervener status.

In a statement, the Conservative Party called Hogue's decision "deeply concerning" and said it "undermines the credibility of the entire process."

Conservative MP and foreign affairs critic Michael Chong, himself a target of an interference campaign, does have full standing in the inquiry. The NDP also gained intervener status, while NDP MP Jenny Kwan — who says CSIS has told her she has been targeted by the Chinese government — has full party status in the inquiry.

Hogue's interim report is due May 3 and her final report is due by the end of the year.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

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