Canada's national approach to combating foreign interference rather than tackling it on a riding-by-riding basis was unfair to voters, Conservative leader Erin O'Toole told a federal inquiry Wednesday — and he thinks it could even have cost him his job.

It quickly became clear to O'Toole on election night in 2021 that he was not about to become prime minister, but he was nonetheless startled by the disappointing results in a number of ridings, he testified.

His team had already flagged concerns about foreign interference in as many as nine ridings with the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections Task Force, which includes representatives from CSIS, RCMP, Global Affairs Canada and the Communications Security Establishment.

When the results for those ridings came in, turnout and Conservative support was far short of what the party had expected to see based on their modelling, O'Toole said.

"The small number of seats would not have impacted the minority government that Canada has right now, but the difference of two, three, five seats may have allowed me more of a moral justification to remain as leader," he said. 

O'Toole was one of several partisan witnesses taking the stand Wednesday at the federal commission of inquiry into foreign interference playing out in Ottawa. 

A declassified intelligence report shown at the hearing drove home that O'Toole and the Conservative party were targets of Chinese interference efforts designed to promote false narratives online about the party's stance on China.

The commission expects to hear evidence that the intelligence community opted to take a national approach to foreign interference, focusing on the ultimate election result, rather than meddling that may have affected individual votes or ridings, the lawyer for Conservative MP Michael Chong said Wednesday.

Senior intelligence officials have told Parliament that both elections were fair and legitimate.

"To suggest that an election is free and fair from foreign interference is not accurate if some people are impacted, whether or not it flipped the result in a riding, or in a few ridings. Each vote matters," O'Toole said in response. 

He shared his view as part of ongoing hearings that are part of the inquiry's work examining possible foreign interference by China, India, Russia and others in the last two general elections.

The Conservatives mentioned China 31 times in their written election platform in 2021, and the party took what O'Toole described as a "stronger stance" on Beijing's human-rights violations than the Liberals. 

An "information operation" spread messages on social media platforms WeChat and Douyin — the Chinese equivalent of TikTok — that said O'Toole and his party wanted "to break diplomatic ties with China," the report found. 

Some posts said that Chinese Canadians were scared of the Conservative platform, and questioned whether that community should support the party. 

Warnings to voters and affected candidates were warranted in that election, O'Toole argued, but Tories said security officials didn't inform the party about the concerns. Officials only informed O'Toole that he was a target of meddling attempts last spring, he said. 

The government's special rapporteur, David Johnston, had found little evidence of a link between the alleged interference attempts and the election result. He also concluded that misinformation "could not be traced to a state-sponsored source" in China. 

However, a declassified report from the last week of the 2021 election revealed "what may have been a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) information operation," aimed at dissuading Chinese-Canadians from voting for the Tories. 

Former Tory MP Kenny Chiu testified that if Canada knew about a possible Chinese government-sponsored scheme at the time, they should have told him and other affected candidates. 

He said he was one of those most intensely targeted by online misinformation, and learning what Canada knew all along made him feel angry. In retrospect, if he had known at the time, he said he might not have sought re-election.

"I was deeply troubled, disappointed, that I was exposed, and the government doesn't seem to care. And now ... through the commission I've learned that they've known all about it. It's almost like I was drowning, and they are watching," he said.

Chong also told the commission during his testimony Wednesday that he would have done things differently if he had been made aware earlier he was a target. 

He described an incident in an all-candidates virtual debate during the 2021 election, in which an individual unfamiliar in the rural community who spoke in “Mandarin-accented English” asked questions that Chong described as “accusations.”

Chong said if he had known he would have “gone on high alert during that election.”

That means when “that loaded question” was asked, he would have “pressed record.”  

At an unrelated press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed O'Toole's assertion that foreign interference contributed to any Conservative losses. 

"I can understand where someone who lost an election is trying to look for reasons, other than themselves, why they might have lost an election," Trudeau said Wednesday.

The conclusion of several intelligence and security agencies "was unequivocally that the election's integrity held, that not a single riding or the result of the overall election was impacted or changed because of foreign interference," he said.

China strongly denies all claims it has meddled in Canadian democracy.

Commission lawyer Natalia Rodriguez asked whether Chinese Canadians may have simply been turned off by the Conservative platform, but O'Toole rejected the idea that the party's long-standing position was to blame.

At the very least, he said, parties and candidates believed to be targets of foreign interference should be made aware, and voters should be warned about active misinformation campaigns, especially when it comes to foreign-controlled social media platforms like WeChat.

Such warnings could target specific ridings in diaspora languages where security agencies have detected the greatest threats, he said. 

"I've seen enough to know that the process last time failed, and failed a lot of Canadians," O'Toole said. 

It is not only Conservative candidates who have been warned about potential acts of Foreign interference. CSIS warned New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan in May 2023 that she was an "evergreen target" of the People's Republic of China. 

She believes the fact that she was outspoken about human rights violations in China led her to be excluded from some Chinese community events in her riding, as an example. 

Some voters would whisper to her about their apprehension in supporting her because of the risk their families in China could be targeted, she testified.

She would try to console them by telling them that their ballots would be anonymous, but "they have this fear in their heart," she told the commission.

The commission of inquiry, led by Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue, expects to hear testimony from more than 40 people including community members, political party representatives and federal election officials. 

An initial report of findings from the commission is due May 3, and the final conclusions and recommendations are expected by the end of the year. 

- With files from Anja Karadeglija

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2024.