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Election Interference Concerns Met With ‘Shrugged Shoulders,’ Tory Campaign Manager Testifies

The Parliament Hill Peace Tower is framed in an iron fence on Wellington Street in Ottawa on March 12, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A campaign manager for the Conservative Party in the last federal election has heavily criticized processes put in place by the Liberal government to defend against interference, saying concerns he raised were met with indifference.

“Political parties cannot formulate public policy under threat that they are going to possibly lose ridings based on foreign influence, because of at least a perception of a weak security infrastructure,” said Walied Soliman, chair of law firm Norton Rose Fulbright Canada.

Soliman, who was the campaign co-chair for the Conservative Party in 2021, said while testifying before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) on May 18 that he had raised two specific issues with the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force.

Soliman was one of two Conservative Party appointees who were given security clearances to interact with SITE, which draws members from departments and agencies with security mandates. The other was Tausha Michaud, a former chief of staff to former Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole, who also testified before the committee.

Soliman said he asked SITE how parties were supposed to know if there was a candidate or fundraiser who posed a risk, and given initial reports of problems in multiple ridings, if it had identified any risk to the 2021 election.

“On both those questions, I increasingly felt that we were not taken seriously,” he told MPs.

“After the election, and before the new government was sworn in, we spent more time providing everything we had to the task force and appropriate security channels. We were met with more shrugged shoulders, and I felt indifference.”

Soliman said that during the final call with SITE, he told them that he felt the security establishment had “failed the process.” He made similar comments on Twitter back in February, in reaction to a Globe and Mail report on Beijing’s strategy to interfere with the elections.

Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull challenged Soliman’s claims by referencing the previous testimony of National Security and Intelligence Advisor (NSIA) Jody Thomas to the committee.

Thomas said on March 1 that Soliman had been provided a “very detailed response back to him on or about October 22, 2021, indicating that the allegations were being taken very seriously but that we did not see evidence in the intelligence to support the claims he presented.”

Soliman told Turnbull that he was “a little bit surprised” by Thomas’s comments, saying he has “no record of any written response.” He added he had reached out to Thomas to clarify things and said he learned that her comments were related to a videoconference with her staff.

“They were not in connection with any written comments. However, I was not satisfied with the conclusions of the security establishment at that time.”

Soliman added that he accepts Thomas made the comments “in good faith,” and that the two have agreed to further discuss the matter in private.

“But there was no written response,” he asserted.

Rosenberg Report

Soliman and Michaud also criticized another elections integrity mechanism, which was meant to review the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol. The intent of the protocol is to inform the public whether a threat to the integrity of the elections emerges.

Former senior public servant and former head of the Trudeau Foundation Morris Rosenberg conducted the review of the protocol and published his findings on Feb. 28.

His assessment was that the mechanism had generally worked well but he made a number of recommendations for the government, such as to improve communications on different matters.

The section of his report on briefings by security agencies provided to political parties says that “party representatives were pleased with the thoroughness of the briefings and the openness of the NSA representatives. They appreciated the opportunity to ask questions.”

Conservative MP Michael Cooper asked the witnesses how that section of the report could be reconciled with their testimony.

“I think you’d have to ask [Rosenberg],” answered Soliman.

As one of the two party representatives to SITE, Michaud said she had not talked to Rosenberg and Soliman said he could not recall having done so.

Rosenberg told the Commons ethics committee on May 2 that he had talked to the Conservatives.

The PROC has been studying foreign interference in Canada since November, and its activities on the matter have increased in intensity due to the national security leaks in the media painting a picture of extensive meddling by the Chinese regime.

The committee was also recently tasked by the House to investigate Beijing’s targeting of Conservative MP Michael Chong, and a motion adopted on May 16 is calling a new list of witnesses to testify, such as ministers, heads of security agencies, and even the Chinese ambassador.