Conservative Convention: The 2021 Election

Conservative Convention: The 2021 Election

As in 2019, Conservatives won the overall popular vote in 2021. And under Erin O’Toole the party recovered some support in the Greater Toronto Area and British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

But it wasn’t enough to change the arithmetic of Parliament.

The Conservatives remained at 119 seats -- and on the opposition benches. 

Conservatives picked up two Ontario seats from the Liberals, two in Nova Scotia, one in New Brunswick, and one in Newfoundland and Labrador. (The two parties also swapped a pair of suburban ridings north of Toronto.)

However, Conservative support dropped in rural Western ridings compared to Andrew Scheer’s lone campaign as leader. The party lost two seats in Edmonton and one in Calgary. And four in the Lower Mainland.

Did foreign interference play a role in the Conservative result?

O’Toole told the House of Commons in May 2023 that CSIS had confirmed “that my party, several members of my caucus and I were the targets of a misinformation and voter suppression campaign orchestrated by China before and during the 2021 general election.”

An earlier party investigation claimed a “strong case” for outside interference against Conservatives in 13 GTA and Metro Vancouver ridings (including three seats lost to the Liberals).

"Through message groups on WeChat, text-based and news-content-style articles were circulated which directly targeted the Conservatives or expressed support for the Liberals,” a post-election memo said.

"It's our understanding that the federal Liberals were not expected to do as well as they did with the Chinese community and that they did not coordinate this campaign directly."

Fred DeLorey, the Conservative national campaign manager, said those results "felt off" and prompted the internal review of potential interference. 

But were the lost Conservative seats due to foreign activity – or to the party’s hardline approach on China?

“It's a challenge to say what did this or not," DeLorey told the House procedure committee in April 2023. "It's something that can never be answered. We don't know, and we will never know at this stage.”

David Johnston's first report as special rapporteur on foreign interference said:

The SITE Task Force’s conclusion was that, although information had been circulating, it was unable to tie it to a state-sponsored source, and it was unclear whether the amplification was organic ... or part of an orchestrated campaign.

Mr. O’Toole continued to assert over the next several months that PRC interference cost the party eight or nine seats … it is hard to accept this assertion, which has been rejected by the SITE Task Force and the 2021 (Critical Election Incident Public Protocol panel) ... there is certainly a possibility that some part of the Chinese Canadian community did not agree with the CPC’s position on China. This is not foreign interference; it is the democratic process.

Johnston also cited a 2023 review of the government’s Critical Election Incident Public Protocol (CEIPP), which concluded there was a challenge in measuring the impact of pro-Beijing disinformation targeting Conservative candidates.

Wrote former deputy minister Morris Rosenberg:

Were Conservative losses in several ridings with large Chinese diaspora communities due to attacks on the Conservative platform and on one of its candidates by media associated with or sympathetic to the Chinese government? Or were they the result of the Conservatives simply not being able to connect with sufficient numbers of voters in those communities?

Rosenberg said "efforts" at foreign interference did not meet the threshold for action by the CEIPP panel -- but that the government should consider lowering that threshold.

For his part, O’Toole accused the SITE task force and CEIPP of “inaction or incompetence.” And said Johnston only sought input when his review was “largely completed.”