OTTAWA — Malign foreign actors will likely try to meddle in the Canadian federal election in October, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland warned Friday, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed the finger at Russia as the most likely culprit.
Freeland sounded the alarm over election interference at a G7 foreign ministers' gathering in France. At a parallel G7 meeting of interior ministers, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the bloc wants the world's big internet companies — Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft — to do more to stop their platforms from being exploited.
The dual G7 ministerial mirrored a similar joint meeting in Toronto almost one year ago that unfolded against the backdrop of a van attack on Yonge Street that left 10 people dead. A year later, their meetings occurred just weeks after 50 people were killed in two attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Canada's upcoming federal election also attracted interest, sparking a question to Freeland about the likelihood of Russian interference.
"We are very concerned," the minister replied. "I think our judgment is interference is very likely and we think there has probably already been efforts by malign foreign actors to disrupt our democracy."
While Freeland did not specifically mention Russia, Trudeau unloaded on the country when asked about the issue at an event in Toronto.
"We have seen over the past number of years an increase in the interference or the implication of foreign actors in democratic processes. We saw very clearly that countries like Russia are behind a lot of the divisive campaigns, a lot of the divisive social media," the prime minister said.
Trudeau and Freeland talked about Canada's creation of a "critical election protocol," including a group of five senior public servants who will decide whether a malign act of interference in this October's federal election warrants going public about a fundamental threat to the vote in the middle of the campaign.
"The election that's coming up in six months will be decided by Canadians," Trudeau said. "We're going to work very hard with all the intelligence communities and our partners around the world to ensure that our democracies stay strong for all the different voices that express themselves within it."
The G7 is seized with the issue of foreign intrusions in democratic countries and Freeland made the issue a top priority when Canada hosted the bloc last year.
Goodale also pushed a G7 initiative last year to hold the major internet companies to account for malign and disruptive material on their platforms. His assessment one year later: They need to do a better job of fighting terrorism, extremism, child exploitation, and fake news that can undermine democracy.
"The message was very clear to the service providers: the G7 countries are grateful for the steps they have taken over the past three or four years, but more steps are necessary," Goodale said in an interview. "They need to have better technology, they need to be able to move faster, they need to assist the smaller companies that may not have the technical wherewithal of the big four or five."
Freeland said malign actors aren't trying to necessarily influence who wins elections.
"The effort is to make our societies more polarized and to make us, as citizens of democracies, more cynical about the very idea that democracy exists and that it can work."
Canada has learned important lessons from countries like Ukraine, which is seen as a veritable laboratory for malign Russian cybermeddling and disinformation following its recent presidential election, Freeland said.
"Probably the most important and most powerful defence is an aware citizenry," she said.
Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hate, and misogyny are being propagated through various internet platforms, said Goodale.
"This is an evil that we have to combat effectively, and we will use all the tools of our criminal laws, our national security and intelligence laws to deal with this vile phenomenon, which is obviously very dangerous and has cost lives around the world."
Freeland and her British counterpart, Jeremy Hunt, and the international human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney also discussed a joint Canada-British summit on media freedom in London this summer.
Both ministers promoted the need to protect freedom of the press as a core tenet of keeping liberal democracies strong in the face of unprecedented threats.
"The U.K. together with Canada has decided that democratic countries need to stand together to make it an international taboo of the highest order to murder, arrest or detain journalists," said Hunt.
Clooney, whose clients include two Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar, praised Canada and Britain for shining an international spotlight on media freedom.
"Those with a pen in their hand should not feel a noose around their neck," she said.