Toronto MP denies claim he worked against release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor
Most MPs in the House of Commons voted in favour of calling for a public inquiry into foreign election interference Thursday, ramping up the pressure on the federal government following fresh allegations about China's alleged meddling in Canada's affairs.
The NDP motion passed with 172 votes in favour and 149 against.
While non-binding, the vote indicates the will of the majority of voting MPs, raises the pressure on the government and threatens to distract from U.S. President Joe Biden's visit to the capital.
The vote came a day after Toronto-area MP Han Dong's shocking departure from the Liberal caucus.
Dong, who voted in favour of Thursday's motion, told the House of Commons late the night before that he will sit as an Independent after Global News published a story alleging he advised a senior Chinese diplomat in February 2021 that Beijing should hold off on freeing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — the two Canadians being held by China at the time.
Dong denies the allegations.
"I'm taking this extraordinary step because to [sit] in the government caucus is a privilege and my presence there may be seen by some as a conflict of duty and the wrong place to be as an independent investigation pursues the facts in this matter," he said, reading a statement in the House of Commons.
WATCH | Pressure mounts for public inquiry in wake of Dong's departure from Liberal caucus:
MP's exit from Liberal caucus renews calls for public enquiry
There was a renewed push in Parliament for a public inquiry into election interference following the resignation of MP Han Dong from the Liberal caucus. Dong vows to clear his name after a Global News report alleged he advised a Chinese diplomat against releasing the two Michaels. But intelligence experts say that won't be easy.
The Global story cited two unnamed national security sources who said Dong, who represents the riding of Don Valley North, suggested releasing the two men would be helpful to the Conservatives.
CBC News has not verified the allegation and it's not immediately clear how the Conservative Party would have benefited.
Kovrig and Spavor's detentions were widely considered to be acts of retaliation in response to the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada in 2018 following an extradition request from the U.S. The two men were released on Sept. 24, 2021, four days after the federal election.
Dong confirmed to Global that he had a discussion with Consul General Han Tao, but denied that he advised Beijing to delay releasing the two Canadians.
"Let me be clear. What has been reported is false, and I will defend myself against these absolutely untrue claims," said Dong in his remarks to Parliament.
"Let me assure you as a parliamentarian and as a person, I have never and I will never and would never advocate or support the violation of the basic human rights of any Canadian, of anyone, anywhere, period."
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre used question period to demand answers from the government about when it was briefed on the latest allegations.
"The intelligence services that turned up this information to the media would have told the PM. When did they tell him?" he asked.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly responded by saying that releasing Kovrig and Spavor was the "utmost priority" of the government.
Trudeau did not attend question period Thursday. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office told Global they only recently became aware of the MP's conversation with the consulate back in 2021 "after Mr. Dong told us, following recent media questions."
Singh won't end agreement with Liberals
The motion calls for the government to endorse a report from the procedure and House affairs committee calling on the government to "launch a national public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canada's democratic system."
It goes on to say that the inquiry:
- Should be granted all the necessary powers to call witnesses from the government and from political parties.
- Should be able to investigate abuse of diaspora groups by hostile foreign governments.
- Should have the power to order and review all documents it deems necessary for this work, including documents related to national security.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose party has a confidence-and-supply agreement with Trudeau, said he hoped the Liberals would vote in favour but wouldn't pull support for the minority government.
"That is not a decision we're making today," he said. "What we're doing today is forcing a vote on this very matter."
"It has become very clear now, with allegations coming out on a daily basis that are continuing to erode people's confidence in our democracy, that we need a public inquiry."
WATCH | 'The only way to clear the air…is a public inquiry': NDP leader
‘The only way to clear the air…is a public inquiry’: NDP leader
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh speaks with reporters ahead of the vote in the House of Commons on an NDP motion to endorse a report calling for a public inquiry into foreign interference.
The government has so far resisted calls for a public inquiry, suggesting review bodies like the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency are better suited to delve into these issues.
Trudeau appointed former governor general David Johnston as an "independent special rapporteur on foreign interference." Johnston has until May 23 to decide whether he'll suggest the government call a public inquiry.
The Conservatives have criticized Johnston's appointment, citing his relationship with the Trudeau family and his role with the Trudeau Foundation. Johnston has since resigned from the foundation.
Dong's comments come as opposition MPs try to uncover what the Liberal Party knew, or didn't know, about Beijing's alleged attempts to meddle in Canada's elections.
Reporting from the Globe and Mail has alleged the Chinese government sought a Liberal minority government in the 2021 election.
An independent panel tasked with overseeing the 2021 election concluded that foreign meddling did not affect the outcome. CSIS calls foreign interference activities by China's government the "greatest strategic threat to national security."
Dong faces allegations he benefited from China's interference
During his remarks on Wednesday, Dong said, with his voice breaking, "I am a proud Liberal."
"Before concluding, I want to assure Mr. Michael Spavor and Mr. Michael Kovrig and their families that I did nothing to cause them any harm."
An earlier Global News story, also citing anonymous sources, alleged national security officials gave an urgent briefing to senior aides from Trudeau's office in 2019 "warning them that one of their candidates was part of a Chinese foreign interference network."
Global says its sources allege the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) believed Dong, who was re-elected in 2021, was a "witting affiliate" of China's election interference networks.
Dong spoke to reporters for the first time Tuesday since that story broke in February.
"I was not offered, I was not told, I was not informed, nor would I accept any help from a foreign country, whether during my nomination or during my election campaign," he said.
Dong also said Tuesday he had not been contacted by CSIS, the RCMP or Elections Canada.
A CSIS spokesperson would not comment on whether the lack of contact with Dong was unusual.
"There are important limits to what I can publicly discuss, given the need to protect sensitive activities, techniques, methods and sources of intelligence," said Eric Balsam in an email to CBC News on Wednesday.
"Disclosure could allow our adversaries to interrupt or harm our operations, techniques, methods and sources of intelligence. These limitations are therefore essential to ensure the safety, security and prosperity of Canada."
A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry denied interfering in Canadian affairs.
"We have no interest in, and will not interfere in, Canada's internal affairs," Wang Wenbin said Thursday, when asked about Dong's resignation.
"There should be no irresponsible comments on this," he added, according to the official English transcript of a press conference in Beijing.
WATCH | Dong denies Beijing played role in his election:
MP Han Dong says Beijing has 'absolutely not' played a role in his election
MP Han Dong discusses alleged election interference after a media report said he was one of the candidates believed to have been supported financially by the Chinese government heading into the 2019 election.
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 email@example.com
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