Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the foreign interference inquiry that CSIS intelligence briefings regarding potential election interference in 2019 weren’t “sufficiently credible information” to act on.

CSIS officials warned Trudeau in the lead-up to the 2019 election that they suspected irregularities including potential interference in the nomination contest of Liberal MP Han Dong’s Don Valley North riding.

“Irregularities itself is not enough to overturn a democratic event,” Trudeau told the inquiry on Wednesday. 

“In this case, I didn’t feel that there was … sufficiently credible information that would justify this very significant step as to remove a candidate,” he said. 

According to Trudeau, CSIS officials first made him aware of the potential interference in September 2019 after the intelligence agency learned about buses of Chinese students who were being mobilized to support Han Dong. 

CSIS believed their mobilization to be directed by the People’s Republic of China.

The prime minister recounted meeting with Liberal campaign director Jeremy Broadhurst at the time to discuss the “concerns” presented to him by officials from both CSIS and the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force officials had brought to him. 

The SITE task force was created by the Trudeau government in response to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election to sound the alarm on threats of foreign interference in Canadian elections. 

However, Trudeau and Broadhurst ultimately determined that these agencies weren’t familiar enough with election processes to accurately assess the situation.  

“Intelligence services had shared with him (Broadhurst) concerns that Chinese officials in Canada had been developing plans to possibly engage in interference in the nomination contest. Specifically, by mobilizing buses filled with students or buses filled with Chinese speakers or Chinese diaspora members who … would have been mobilized to support Han Dong,” Trudeau told the inquiry.

But according to Trudeau, this was no different than busloads of Italian-Canadians and Greek-Canadians who came out to vote for him during his 2007 nomination race in his riding of Papineau in Montreal. 

Council for Michael Chong pressed Trudeau that the mode of transportation wasn’t the issue of the briefing, but rather that intelligence suggested that the event had been organized by the PRC and assisted by the Chinese Consulate in Toronto.

“The emphasis again wasn’t on the mode of travel for these people. They took buses this time, alright, they could’ve come some other way and it wouldn’t have terribly mattered from the services’ perspective because their concern was they were directed by PRC and assisted in getting to the nomination place in order to allegedly help one candidate over another,” said counsel. “They could have gotten there by tricycles, it doesn’t terribly matter, the point is they were directed by China.”

“I would suggest that it might be more difficult for a foreign actor to organize fleets of individuals showing up on tricycles rather than filling them into a bus,” replied Trudeau. 

Trudeau stressed the importance of remaining skeptical of intelligence briefings and not taking their information as evidence, while also telling Canadians themselves to remain confident in these agencies. 

“There’s always a level of skepticism, of critical thinking,” said Trudeau.

However, he told the inquiry that Canadians can have more confidence that the two previous elections were “free and fair elections” because the panels launched by his government to ensure that hadn’t been created yet.  

“Having a panel in place in both 2019 and 2021 say that they had determined or concluded that the election was free and fair is a really important step. Nobody can say that about the 2015 election for example, or elections before because those panels didn’t exist,” said Trudeau. 

He also shared the predicament he found himself in after these briefings were leaked to the public because his government couldn’t refute them without declassifying secret information.

“Why these leaks were of such deep concern was that we couldn’t actually correct the record without … sharing with adversaries some of the information or the methods that we use to keep Canadians safe,” he said.