Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discounted the effectiveness of Chinese election interference and questioned the reliability of intelligence by Canada’s spy agency about Beijing-directed influence operations during testimony at the public inquiry into foreign meddling.

Mr. Trudeau was the final witness Wednesday in the first phase of the foreign-interference inquiry that was set up last September after concerted pressure from the main opposition parties as well as media stories outlining a sophisticated China operation to influence the 2019 and 2021 elections.

He played down the reliability of information gathered by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, including notes for a Feb. 21, 2023, briefing to the Prime Minister’s Office that was tabled at the public inquiry the day before. The document said Beijing had “clandestinely and deceptively interfered” in both the 2019 and 2021 general elections.

“What I am saying, you have to take this intelligence, you have to take this information, with a certain awareness that it still needs to be confirmed or it might not be 100-per-cent accurate,” Mr. Trudeau testified.

He also disputed CSIS intelligence, first reported by The Globe and Mail last year, that a Chinese diplomat in Vancouver was recorded stating that Beijing preferred the election of a Liberal minority government rather than Conservative Party, led by Erin O’Toole. The Conservatives under Mr. O’Toole had taken a hawkish stand against Beijing, echoing the views of allies such as the United States and Australia.

Then-Vancouver consul-general Tong Xiaoling was quoted in a classified CSIS document, seen by The Globe, as bragging a month after the 2021 election of helping to defeat Conservative MP Kenny Chiu, a strong critic of Beijing.

“There was a foreign government official, based in Canada, who was taking credit for a certain thing having happened in Canada in their reporting to home country,” Mr. Trudeau told the inquiry. “Just the fact that a foreign official is taking credit to having delivered an outcome doesn’t mean it actually created the outcome.”

While he did not discount that “individual officials may well have expressed a preference,” for the Liberal Party, Mr. Trudeau said it would “seem very improbable that the Chinese government would have a preference for the government.” He noted at the time the governing Liberals were in a tense relationship with Beijing over the imprisonment of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

When it comes to foreign interference, Mr. Trudeau said diplomats might boast to their superiors about something that occurred in Canada but that doesn’t mean they were responsible for what transpired. “Bragging is not doing,” he said.

The Foreign Interference Commission has been presented with a series of documents outlining warnings from CSIS about allegations that China and its proxies mounted disinformation campaigns against the Conservative Party in the 2021 election. However, Mr. Trudeau testified that he rarely reads intelligence documents and mostly relies on oral briefings either from his national-security and intelligence adviser or from CSIS director David Vigneault.

The dire concerns raised by the CSIS director in the February, 2023, briefing document were not relayed to him, Mr. Trudeau said.

“The only way to guarantee, to make sure, that I receive the necessary information is to give me an in-person briefing, or over a secure line if necessary, on any issue or priority issue,” he said.

The February, 2023, briefing document in question ended with a warning that better protecting Canadian democratic institutions against foreign interference “will require a shift in the government’s perspective and a willingness to take decisive action and impose consequences on perpetrators.” It said foreign interference will persist until it “is viewed as an existential threat to Canadian democracy and governments forcefully and actively respond.”

Mr. Trudeau’s testimony Wednesday conflicted with what his chief of staff Katie Telford told MPs nearly one year ago, when she testified at a parliamentary committee on April 14: “of course the Prime Minister reads any documents he receives.”

Prehearing testimony by Mr. Trudeau also drove home his reliance on others to inform instead of documents. “He reads them when he can. If he is not able to read the document, he trusts that someone else, specifically the National Security and Intelligence Advisor (“NSIA”), will tell him if there is something important that he needs to know,” a summary of an interview with the Prime Minister said.

Mr. Trudeau was pressed about CSIS’s warning to Liberal Party officials in late September, 2019, about alleged Chinese-directed efforts to help secure the Don Valley North nomination for Han Dong, now sitting as an Independent MP. CSIS told party officials that the Chinese consulate in Toronto helped arrange a bus to bring international students to vote for the nomination.

Mr. Trudeau told the inquiry that he first learned of alleged irregularities from national campaign manager Jeremy Broadhurst, now a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office.

He testified that Mr. Broadhurst told him that CSIS could only say that Chinese officials were “developing plans to possibly engage in interference in the nomination contest.” He felt there was not sufficient evidence to overturn Mr. Dong’s nomination.

“In this case, I didn’t feel there was sufficient or sufficiently credible information that would justify this very significant step as to remove a candidate in these circumstances,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Mr. Trudeau was also asked about Mr. Dong’s 2021 call with then-Toronto consul-general Han Tao about the incarceration of the two Michaels.

A CSIS summary of the conversation tabled at the inquiry last week showed that Mr. Dong advised the consul-general that releasing the two imprisoned Canadians would affirm “the effectiveness of a hard-line Canadian approach” to China.

Mr. Trudeau voiced doubt about CSIS’s version of this, saying “there is a lot of uncertainty,” even around the spy agency’s account of intercepted conversation.

Earlier on Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc also questioned CSIS intelligence, including in briefings he received in February and May, 2023, about Chinese state “disinformation campaigns” targeting Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Chiu in the 2021 election.

Mr. LeBlanc said he was “quite skeptical” of the intelligence that purported to know whether China favoured the Liberal Party over the Conservatives.

The Globe and Mail, April 10, 2024