OTTAWA — Former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole said Thursday that Canada's spy agency told him he would be a target of the Chinese government "into the future" for "an undetermined time."
O'Toole, who has returned to the private sector after retiring from more than a decade in elected politics, shared that detail with MPs on a parliamentary committee that is probing the issue of foreign interference and the privilege of parliamentarians.
The study was launched amid media reports late last year and early this year that Beijing had allegedly meddled in Canada's affairs during the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
In May, the federal government confirmed a media report that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had information in 2021 that China's government was looking to intimidate longtime Conservative MP Michael Chong, as well as his relatives in Hong Kong.
That prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to say the spy agency needed to share such information with parliamentarians.
O'Toole said he learned of Beijing's likely ongoing interest in him when he questioned why CSIS officials used the present tense when referring to him as a "target of interest" during a late May briefing, just before he was set to retire from politics.
"I had to ask, 'You're using the present tense,'" O'Toole testified Thursday, recalling the conversation he had with officials during the briefing.
"'I'm not the Conservative leader anymore and I'm not going to be an MP in a few months when the session comes to an end.'"
O'Toole said he asked if that language meant he was a target on an ongoing basis, and he received clarification that that was the case.
He said that this was in part because of long-held "concerns about certain conduct" of the Chinese Communist Party.
"It was surprising to me," he said, that the officials considered this to happen "into the future (for) an undetermined time."
O'Toole's testimony comes after he and his former campaign staff raised concerns that a panel tasked with monitoring for threats and other interference attempts in the 2021 election did not take their concerns seriously.
He has said that the party brought concerns to the panel about Conservative candidates being possible targets of an online misinformation campaign regarding the party's stance on China.
China has long rejected accusations that it has meddled in Canadian politics, and says those claims hurt the bilateral relationship.
"For some time, the Canadian side has falsely accused China of spreading disinformation against Canadian politicians on multiple occasions, but it has never come up with any solid evidence," foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Tuesday, according to an official translation of her remarks.
"The Canadian side has long made up lies ... to attack and smear China. It is the Canadian side that has been producing and spreading disinformation."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2023.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press