There’s a bit of a “You must be at least this tall to ride” quality to Justice Marie-Josée Hogue’s first report from the foreign inquiry commission, released Friday.

Her bottom-line conclusion, after listening to months of testimony in public and behind closed doors, is that attempts by foreign actors to meddle in Canadian politics did not affect the outcomes of the 2019 and 2021 elections. In the report, the commissioner is both clear and narrow on this point: What she means is that the rules and mechanisms that govern our elections functioned as they were supposed to.

“I therefore believe voters were able to cast their ballots, and to have their votes faithfully recorded,” she wrote.

So, the Elections Canada machine worked as it was supposed to, and no one was able to shove a big enough stick into the gears to seize them up.

But all around that one reassuring conclusion, Justice Hogue’s report is shot through with warnings about individual Canadians and entire communities who are being targeted by outside powers that want them to think a certain thing, vote a particular way or simply shut up about an unwelcome topic. The commissioner went out of her way to make clear that this human toll matters to the way the whole machinery functions.

“Our electoral system is based on the principle of fairness among voters: every vote counts equally, and is treated as having the same value, weight, and potential effect,” she wrote. “Fairness presupposes that voters have access to reliable information, can take part in robust discussions and are free to think for themselves and form their own opinions. In my view, the events named in this report likely diminished the ability of some voters to cast an informed vote, thereby tainting the process.”

And beyond the electoral process itself, there are bigger issues like the public life of a country, how much true freedom its citizens have and how muscular are the arms of a malign foreign state reaching across its borders.

The Editorial Board: The three big questions still unanswered on foreign interference

A guide to foreign interference and China’s suspected influence in Canada

As Justice Hogue wrote, the first testimony that the commission heard was from a panel of diaspora community members, making their experiences a sort of lens through which she would view everything she heard after.

There were half a dozen people on that panel, originally from China, Iran and Russia. They described living in the “total darkness” of isolation from family because of coercion and threats; of an “invisible and persuasive hand” pushing diaspora communities in Canada to do the bidding of a repressive regime elsewhere; misinformation and propaganda pumped out through social-media channels like a tainted water supply.

It was a member of that panel – Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project – who astutely brought everything to ground level. When it comes to hostile foreign governments, the term “interference” invokes images of broad, systemic efforts like stealing intellectual property or launching disinformation campaigns, he told the commission. But that’s not what it looks like for those living it.

“When it comes to the individual level, it is about threat,” Mr. Tohti said in his testimony. “It is about hijacking of your family members to force you or compel you to live within the rule of [a] hostile regime in [a] democratic country like in Canada.”

In an interview this week, he said that his grown son and other people ask him all the time why he keeps at his advocacy, despite how costly it is in both big, searing ways – his mother died in a Uyghur concentration camp, he says, but he can’t get any details – and a thousand grinding small ones, such as the mysterious vehicles a neighbour noticed pulling out every time he left the house. Mr. Tohti believes that if he folds, China will learn its tactics work and, like a classic bully, it will go further next time.

“We are free people in Canada, right? Why?” he said. “Because some people before us paid the price for our freedom. Isn’t that true? We forgot them, or we just commemorate them once a year. But our freedom just exists because of the sacrifice previous generations made for us.”

Justice Hogue came away from the commission hearings confident that Canada’s voting system stood strong against meddling attempts.

But the output of a factory is the combined result of the equipment on the shop floor and the ingredients fed into it. If the Canadian electoral system is the machine here, then the raw materials are all of the citizens making all their individual choices that add up to the composition of a government and the direction of a country.

Mr. Tohti has his own clear-eyed and principled reasons for refusing to be cowed.

But there are uncounted thousands – maybe even millions – of others in Canada facing intimidation or manipulation from foreign powers. How many of those people, presented with a funhouse-mirror vision of the world that serves someone else’s purpose, or a constant drip of reminders that they’re being watched from afar, will change their vote or stay home, or decide not to raise their hand or their voice when they have a chance?

And how would we ever know?