Discover more from The Line
Dispatch from the Front Lines: Telford on the hot seat, then and now
Also: social media's problems, here and abroad. And why the Trudeau Foundation has got to go.
Happy weekend, Line readers! Please remember that as an experiment, we’re keeping the paywall down on our dispatches this month, and putting columns by The Line editors behind the paywall instead. If you care about the future of independent journalism in this country, please subscribe. (That’s the carrot.) If you don’t, you shall be denied the collective wisdom of The Line. (That’s the stick.)
We wouldn’t dream of keeping our videos from you, though. Enjoy!
Podcast version is here, too.
A nation let out a long-held gasp of relief when the prime minister's chief of staff finally stepped up to testify to allegations of Chinese foreign interference on Friday. And one could not help but come away from the affair asking some serious questions. Questions like: "Why did the Liberals spend so much effort and political capital trying to prevent this testimony?" and "What, specifically, has been inaccurate about the reporting on interference to date?" and "Are we actually allowing our government to hide far too much under the guise of reflexive secrecy because we've expanded the concept of 'national security' to include concepts like 'national interest'?"
We, at The Line, will take each of these questions in turn.
The first: given that Katie Telford scores several points higher on the IQ scale than anybody questioning her at committee (sorry, but this is just true. Several MPs did a perfectly respectable job, but Telford is far more cagey than any of them) it should shock no one that the entire two-hour testimony passed like a fart in the wind.
One has to be deeply into the weeds of the foreign interference story to glean any useful information out of what Telford said — or, more specifically, what she didn't say. The top-line of the testimony was her assurance that she doesn't serve as some kind of plausible deniability barrier for the PM, withholding information from him that may prove to be politically damaging. Quite the opposite, she said: Justin Trudeau reads everything; no one keeps information from him. The blue eye of Trudeau knows all and sees all.
Which brings us to the matter of why the Liberals tried so hard to prevent Telford from testifying in the first place. They employed all kinds of procedural chicanery including filibustering, and only really caved on the issue after the NDP sided with the Conservatives to compel Telford to show up. To this we can only guess: the whole thing was a stall tactic. By focusing the news cycle on Telford, they bought themselves a few weeks.
Question two: Telford repeated ad nauseum that she was unable to offer detailed responses to MPs' questions because they were covered under the aegis of national security. Paradoxically, she was able to tell us that the reporting from Global has been considered "inaccurate." But she was conveniently unable to get into great detail about what, exactly, was inaccurate about it.
For what it's worth, we don't actually doubt that there have been inaccuracies in some of the investigative reporting on this file. Further, we would note, that's extremely normal. When journalists are dealing with anonymous sources and partial versions of documents, it would be completely understandable to mess up on some of the details.
What's also normal is for the subject of that reporting to pick on relatively insignificant errors and weaponize them to undermine the reporting as a whole. Consider "She was 19!" as a classic recent example of this tactic.
So, no, we don't take it on faith that Global or even the Globe and Mail has gotten every single thing on the foreign interference front totally correct. For example, we now understand that the 11 MPs flagged by CSIS for too-close connections to China weren't necessarily the recipients of any misbegotten election funding: some of them are probably entirely innocent of any kind of witting collusion.
But given that the cat is out of the bag — and redacted versions of the very CSIS briefing documents that have been reported on have now been submitted to the House of Commons for MPs' scrutiny — it's bizarre, evasive, and pointless to avoid getting into the weeks about what the journalists got wrong, and what they got right.
We mean, hey, guys: It's public now. What "national security" can credibly be preserved by just coming right out and setting the record straight at this point? This is the sort of thing a public inquiry might do, but, sigh, we digress.
This brings us to the last takeaway from Telford's testimony: and that is, what, exactly does "national security" even mean at this point, and has that term suffered such an expansive growth in scope that the government and its actions are now operating in a state of reflexive secrecy?
We at The Line understand that things like sources and tactics ought not to be public knowledge. We absolutely respect that there is information that genuinely can't be known to us for reasons of public or operational safety. We're also not naïve to the obligations we may have to our international allies on this matter.
What's not clear to us is why much of the information gathered by CSIS on Chinese foreign interference fits this bill. What security concern, exactly, is protected by keeping the details of Chinese influence campaigns secret? Are we worried that China will bomb Ottawa if this information is made public? Knowledge of the issue may certainly undermine faith in Canadian democratic processes; but if that's the security concern, then the best antidote is to make all of this public lickity split and allow the democratic process to work its will. Faith in democracy is not maintained by secrecy.
Further, wouldn't our intelligence allies tend to trust us more if they saw that we were aware of how domestic foreign interference networks work, and were making a good-faith public effort to address the issue?
It seems to us that the concept of "national security" has extended to mean "national interest" and maybe even "national embarrassment." Would publishing details of interference make things awkward for Canadian diplomats managing a tenuous relationship with China, for example? Well, maybe. We can even empathize with that problem, but it wouldn't constitute a security concern, and therefore shouldn't be afforded the special protections granted to such things.
We at The Line don't believe the public should be asked to defer to the demands of secrecy just because someone we don't know has labelled information a "national security" concern using criteria we cannot evaluate. We hope that the MPs who do have access to that information agree with us.
Further to the above, before Telford's testimony this week, The Line went back into the archives from that long-ago era of 2021 and brushed up on the last time the PMO's chief of staff appeared before a Parliamentary committee. We were struck by how closely some of the issues then align with those of today. This is, for Telford and the PMO, a problem. But not one we think most people will notice unless nudged in that direction. Consider yourselves so nudged.
To recap: in 2021, the government was hit by a series of stories, mostly published by Global News (mainly by Mercedes Stephenson and Amanda Connolly, two people we hope to never piss off). The stories detailed what the government knew, and what it failed to do, about allegations of sexual misconduct against General Jonathan Vance, an army officer and the just-retired chief of the defence staff — Canada's top military commander. Vance had been in a long-term sexual relationship with a subordinate military officer (which was bad), and also asked her to lie about it (also bad).
This is all on record. Though he originally denied it, Vance eventually admitted the truth of the allegations. He even pleaded guilty in a civilian court to criminal charges of obstruction of justice for putting pressure on the female subordinate to lie to investigators about their relationship. (He received probation and a discharge, thus avoiding a criminal record.) A DNA test later confirmed that Vance had fathered at least one child with the accuser. There is no doubt about the facts here.
This would have been just another sadly familiar example of sexual misconduct in the military but for a wrinkle. Vance had been accused of misconduct while he was serving as the top soldier. Gary Walbourne, who was then the ombudsperson for the Canadian Forces, received a complaint about Vance. Walbourne raised it with then-defence minister Harjit Sajjan; Sajjan sent it up to the PMO. That's where things got interesting. Because this serious allegation of misconduct against Canada's top soldier — a powerful man accused of exploiting a woman he had power over — got all the way to the top of our self-styled feminist government and ... died. It was looked into it a bit, and then nothing happened. Vance continued to serve for several more years, retiring of his own volition slightly before the Global first broke news of the scandal.
There's two problems here for the PMO. The first is the obvious appalling hypocrisy of a "feminist" government essentially shrugging when a woman appealed for help through the only official channel available to her. Telford, testifying about all of this in 2021, agreed that more needed to have been done. No kidding. She also lamented that the woman making the accusation had no place to go. As Line editor Gurney noted in a National Post column at the time, that's not at all true. The woman had a place to go: the PMO, via the defence minister and ombudsperson. The woman got where she was supposed to go. It's just that when she got there, right into Telford's office, no one cared enough to do anything.
That's not not having a place to go. That's having a place to go, and being ignored when you get there.
But there was another problem with Telford's testimony in 2021, as well as the prime minister's comments: they continued to insist that while they knew there'd been some kind of allegation against Vance, they didn't know what it was. "Nobody knew that it was a 'Me Too' complaint," Trudeau said in 2021. In her testimony, Telford said something similar: “I assumed this could have been a serious allegation. But I had absolutely no information about it.”
Bullshit. Wrong. Inaccurate. A lie. Global News had already reported by that point that internal communications in the PMO, which they obtained and reported on, included specific reference to "allegations of sexual harassment." It was right in the emails. It's clear that no one knew all the details when the report first reached the PMO, and it's possible that the PM himself was kept carefully isolated from some of what was known, but the documents already on the record revealed that the PMO's position was to lie about what they knew and when.
We know this all sounds like ancient history. But you see the connections to today, right? When all the stories about Chinese electoral interference first surfaced, our first thought was that it sounded like SNC-Lavalin. It still does in a lot of ways. But there's a lot of the Vance scandal here, too. The PMO is resting an awful lot of their defence on having known that something was up in a general sense, but insisting they didn't have any actionable specifics. This is what Gurney referred to in a 2021 column as an "extremely convenient outbreak of crippling incuriosity among senior officials." It seems to be a recurring problem with these guys.
Assuming they aren't just lying through their teeth again. Given the facts on the record, that's not an assumption we feel safe making.
We have to admit to a bit of embarrassment: there was a big story this week that we forgot to mention in our video and podcast. It’s a big story, and our only explanation was that it it slipped our minds while we were gabbing. We want to correct that omission now. The report by the Canadian Press this week that government bureaucrats leaned on Facebook and Twitter to delete links to a Postmedia column ought to be setting off all kinds of alarm bells. This is a big deal.
This happened in 2021, the CP reported:
The request to remove social-media posts that linked to an unspecified Toronto Sun article came from a director of communications on Sept. 27, 2021, according to information prepared by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
Documents say that staff at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada — which reports to Parliament through the immigration minister but is otherwise an independent body — believed the article contained serious errors of fact risking [and] undermining public confidence in the independence of the board as well as the integrity of the refugee determination system.
The social media companies ultimately denied the request because the article wasn't their original content.
The Sun papers have since clarified that the column in question was by Lorne Gunter, an Edmonton-based journalist (and, for disclosure, former colleague of the Line editors). The Sun further asserts that, contrary to the claim, there was nothing inaccurate in the column.
With respect to both the Sun and Gunter, we actually think that’s beside the point. Even if it was inaccurate, the government has no business asking third parties to block access to information it disagrees with, unless it falls very clearly inside the very narrow limits of illegal content: hate speech, incitement to violence, sexual exploitation material, and the like. We could even be convinced to go further, a bit, and agree that there may be reasons why a government agency or ministry may ask for limits on outright fake news, such as, for example, an account that is impersonating an official or circulating fake government documents. In an era where video and audio deep fakes are only going to get cheaper and easier to make, and massively more convincing, we are realists about the need for officials to step in sometimes.
But this … wasn’t that. It was a column, by a reputable author in a mainstream publication. If the government had problems with it, it should have proceeded through established channels. Reach out to the author. Contact the editor. Ask for corrections. Demand them, if denied. Send a letter to the editor for publication. If none of this works, even have a minister or official go out and set the record straight, while blasting the outlet for refusing to do so. A snarky tweet would be all that’s needed. You don’t even need to scrum in front of microphones.
There’s tons of options for a government staffer or minister who truly believes the media has something wrong. There’s lots they can do. But they have to do it in public.
That’s the key: do all this in public. That’s how things work in a democracy. We aren’t going to agree about everything. We will even disagree about the truth. Two people can view the same facts and come to different conclusions. That’s life. The government and its officials have every right to participate in public debate. Hell, we’d say they have an obligation. But they must do do in established ways, in plain view. Going through backchannels to have access to content they disagree with blocked or limited is wildly inappropriate. Outrageous, even.
And it’s exactly why we are so dead set against broad government powers to edit, censor, remove or alter online content, again excepting the narrow limits sketched out above. If you want to know why we are so alarmed by growing government control over the traditional media and digital content publishing more broadly, it’s because of issues exactly like this.
In 2021, the government had to ask for the posts to be removed. And they were rejected. How long until they can just order it with the full power of the law behind them?
We’d rather not find out. But make no mistake: That’s the course we’re on.
Of all the responses to the ongoing trouble at the Trudeau Foundation — which this past week saw the resignation of its president and CEO, Pascale Fournier, as well as most of its governing board — the most hilarious might be the idea that the Globe and Mail has taken down yet another innocent Canadian charity. We first saw this take boosted by Gerry Butts on Twitter, after which it quickly swamped our Twitter feeds like a mating pair of escaped Tribbles.
For all its popularity as the latest approved shamrock talking point, it is, as should be obvious, preposterous. First of all, if we’re all talking about the same couple of charities, well, Canadaland would like a word. But more to the point, we would take issue with the idea that in its reporting on the Trudeau Foundation the Globe and Mail has damaged the reputation of another completely innocent, utterly non-partisan and totally valuable charitable organization. And we would suggest that if one is looking for a causal common denominator in the troubles at the Trudeau Foundation and another similarly troubled Canadian charity, we would suggest it is the involvement of people named Trudeau.
At any rate, whatever plausibility the charity-as-innocent-victim-of-newspaper-with-an-agenda claim might have had on, say, Wednesday, it was dead and buried by Friday. That was when La Presse published an astonishing story reporting that, back in 2016, the Trudeu government knew that the troublesome donation to the Trudeau Foundation was from the Beijing government, that the Trudeau government was concerned about the donation, and that it was actively involving itself in the file. And then, also on Friday, the Trudeau Foundation asked the Auditor General to look into the Chinese donation.
So, now we know that from the government’s perspective, the Trudeau Foundation is not just another charity, far from it. And as far as the Trudeau Foundation is concerned, well, how many charities casually ask the Auditor General to act as their personal accountant?
Let’s be clear. As foreign influence operations go, the donation of $140k to the Trudeau foundation by opaque Chinese business interests is equal parts comically ham-handed and seriously sketchy. But by the same token, it is now pretty clear that we’re long past the time when we could just chalk it up to the Trudeau Foundation simply being led by people with rather poor judgment.
Which is why as we see it, the scandal is not that the Trudeau Foundation was used as a vector for Beijing influence operations. No, it is increasingly obvious the scandal is the existence of the Trudeau Foundation itself.
For those born in this century, a bit of history might be in order. When Pierre Trudeau died in September 2000, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien hit upon the idea of renaming Mount Logan — the highest mountain in Canada, and the second-highest on the continent — Mount Trudeau. You can see the Liberal logic at work: Pierre Trudeau was the greatest prime minister we’ve ever had — the Mount Logan of leaders, if you will — so why not just make it so.
Chrétien was probably the most surprised person in Canada when his proposal was met with a storm of protest by people who understood that Sir William Logan, the founder of the Canadian Geological Survey, had done more for Canada than generations of Trudeaus ever could. Besides, a set of peaks had already been set aside in B.C.’s Premier Range for honouring our dearly departed leaders. Wasn’t something good enough for Mackenzie King good enough for Pierre Trudeau?
Apparently not. Stung by this public rejection, Chrétien and the Trudeau family set about figuring out another way of making it clear that Pierre Trudeau stood head and shoulders above other former Canadian prime ministers. As the story goes, Trudeau’s son Sacha hit on the idea of endowing some scholarships to create a “living memorial” to his father. It’s a fine idea, and one that would certainly have found eager millions in private donations. But instead, Chrétien appropriated $125 million in taxpayers money to endow the Trudeau Foundation.
It is not necessary for anyone associated with the Trudeau Foundation to be a member of the Liberal party or to donate to the party, or even explicitly identify as a Liberal supporter. But that’s not because the Foundation is non-partisan; it is because its job is not to produce Liberal partisans, but rather, to reproduce the substantial class of Canadians who can’t really conceive of the country being run by people other than Liberals.
To see how this works, imagine for a second that, during his tenure as prime minister, Stephen Harper had decided to take $125 million in public money to endow, in Calgary perhaps, a foundation devoted to perpetuating the memory and legacy of a prominent Western Canadian politician ((The Manning Foundation? The Lougheed Foundation?). Central Canada would have lost its frigging mind. The fact that Harper never even tried something like this suggests that he knew just how much political capital it would cost him.
The Trudeau Foundation should probably never have been created with public money. Having been created, members of the Trudeau family should probably never have been on the governing board. Given that they were on the board, they all probably should have stepped down when Justin Trudeau became leader of the Liberal party. When Justin Trudeau became prime minister, the Foundation should probably have been renamed.
Over the last few decades, the overseers of the Trudeau Foundation have had plenty of opportunities to strive to preserve, at the very least, the appearance that it is an institution for all Canadians. Those opportunities have been ignored. Just the opposite: the Foundation has been used to promote the class interests and ambitions of a narrow group of Canadians, of which the members of the Trudeau family are the leading exemplars.
That, more than anything else, explains why Beijing figured it could curry favour with the government by giving money to the Trudeau Foundation. Given this, we think the only remaining credible option is for it to be shut down.
In a short aside, what in the holy hell is going on with this bizarre CBC story? Published this week, a story that read: “A veteran Canadian MP met three times with the ambassador of a country in the crosshairs of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, leading CSIS to warn the parliamentarian away from further interactions, CBC News has learned.”
And this story seems to have come about after: “CBC reached out to more than 30 MPs across party lines who identify as members of ethnic or religious minorities to ask if they thought they had ever been inappropriately surveilled by Canada's intelligence agencies.”
Further, the CBC won’t identify the MP, nor the country in question.
So let’s get this straight: we have ongoing reporting suggesting that China was running a clandestine effort to influence MPs; and we have reports that one of those MPs, Han Dong, was meeting with the Chinese consul in Toronto without informing either Global Affairs Canada, nor the PMO, and CBC’s response to this is to ask MPs if they thought they were being inappropriately surveilled?
It seems to us that the real question is whether these MPs are being surveilled entirely appropriately, frankly.
We will also note that CSIS can’t surveil an MP unless it gets sign off from the public safety minister, so if there are allegations of “inappropriate” surveillance, surely such questions ought to go to the minister in question.
While we’re picking this story apart, we will also point out that there’s no evidence that CSIS did anything wrong in it. The intelligence service warned a sitting MP that he or she ought to be careful when meeting with an ambassador who was on CSIS’ list-o-dubious folk. So … CSIS did its job. That’s its job. That’s what it’s supposed to do. Warning MPs “yo, that dude is pretty sus,” is a service to the MP, not a threat.
Also, refusing to name the country in question is bizarre. How does refusing to name the country protect the identity of the MP? Heck, why is the MP being granted anonymity at all?
It seems like some kind of bizarre effort to avoid stigmatizing China, maybe? If it’s China, which we presume it is, like, guys, we already know. One of the downsides of running a foreign influence campaign in a Western nation is that your country might come off poorly in the target country in question. It’s not the CBC’s job to mitigate the reputational damage that China has done to itself.
And if it wasn’t China, then why are we even here? What is the point of this story? Who thought this made any kind of sense?
In our dispatch last week, we noted that Twitter seemed to be limiting the ability for publications relying on the Substack publishing platform, including this one, to share their work over Twitter’s network. After a sharp outcry, this seems to have been partially undone.
We’re glad. Twitter is not a major source of growth or revenue for us, but it ain’t worth zero. Losing access to it would have hurt. Fatal? No. But unhelpful for a scrappy new outlet still trying to make its way in the world.
So even though we’re relieved by what looks like a happy-ish outcome here, at least for now, we feel it prudent to ask you all, once more, to support us if you can. That means by subscribing, if you haven’t already, but also sharing our work, as broadly as possible, through all your networks.
Our greatest challenge is growing our visibility. Our metrics show us that people like us and stick with us … once they find us. But we need to get in front of their eyes to have a chance. Twitter is making that harder. Government regulation, should it alienate Google and Facebook, will make it harder still. Our best answer to that is … you. You, in your thousands. Support us directly if you can, and help spread the word about The Line.
You won’t always agree with us. We’ll make you angry sometimes. But we will never, ever lie to you.
Well that’s it for this week, friends. We are sorry we are a little late with today’s dispatch. It’s Gerson’s fault. She took her kids to Supertrain on Saturday and couldn’t get her ass home in time to write. Blame here. Also, if you’re in Calgary, check out Supertrain. It was poppin’, as the kids say.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org