Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he will not call an independent public inquiry into Chinese interference in Canadian politics after former governor-general David Johnston recommended against one.
Mr. Johnston, who was asked by Mr. Trudeau in March to lead an investigation into foreign meddling in the 2019 and 2021 elections, said in his report tabled Tuesday that such interference is an “increasing threat to our democratic system,” and China is “particularly active.”
He concluded, however, that because intelligence about Beijing’s activities is highly classified, it could never be openly discussed with Canadians in a public inquiry.
In the 55-page report, Mr. Johnston details his serious concerns about how intelligence is shared between security agencies such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the government. “There are serious shortcomings in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government,” the report said.
He said he uncovered no proof that Mr. Trudeau ignored intelligence briefings on Chinese influence operations in the 2019 and 2021 elections and discovered no evidence that Mr. Trudeau was informed of a 2021 warning by CSIS on how Beijing was targeting Conservative MP Michael Chong.
“I have not found examples of ministers, the Prime Minister or their offices knowingly ignoring intelligence, advice or recommendations on foreign interference or being driven by partisan considerations in dealing with these issues,” he wrote.
Special rapporteur David Johnston says that a formal inquiry into foreign interference is not needed, but that public hearings should be held as part of his own mandate. He says a public inquiry would be an easy choice, but not the correct one.
The Canadian Press
Mr. Johnston told The Globe that the intelligence should have gone to the Prime Minister and key ministers but did not and that must be addressed.
“Our machinery of government with respect to CSIS is not working as well as it should,” he said in an interview. “One likes to think in your system when you have something that is really pretty damaging and it gets, certainly to a senior minister, right to the top. That filtering system is not working as well as it should.”
The leaders of the three main opposition parties in Canada’s minority parliament were united in their criticism of Mr. Johnston’s findings after he dismissed the need for a public inquiry.
The Prime Minister, however, insisted that he had pledged to heed whatever Mr. Johnston directed.
“I committed to listening to very carefully and abiding by the recommendations that the former governor-general made … and we will be following his recommendations,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters a few hours after Mr. Johnston tabled the report.
The Johnston findings did not dispute a series of reports by The Globe and Mail on Chinese foreign influence in Canada, including Beijing’s targeting of Mr. Chong or China’s efforts to influence the 2021 election.
Mr. Johnston identified a major intelligence communication breakdown in the government’s failure to alert Mr. Chong back in 2021 of evidence gathered by CSIS that the Chinese government was targeting him for his work in spearheading a parliamentary motion that declared Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs to constitute genocide.
He said he learned that CSIS sent a note to then-minister of public safety Bill Blair, the minister’s chief of staff and his deputy minister in May, 2021, alerting them of intelligence “indicating the PRC [People’s Republic of China] intended to target Mr. Chong, another [unidentified] MP and their family in China.”
A guide to foreign interference and China’s suspected influence in Canada
But, Mr. Johnston said, neither the minister nor his chief of staff received this note and neither have access to the top secret e-mail network on which the message was sent.
“This is certainly the most prominent, but not the only, example of poor information flow and processing between agencies, the public service and ministers,” Mr. Johnston wrote.
The Globe based its Chinese state influence reporting on secret and top-secret CSIS documents that were shared among senior government departments and Canada’s Five Eyes intelligence allies: the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The CSIS documents reported by The Globe revealed China’s effort to seek the return of a minority Liberal government in 2021 and target MPs whose views it did not like with disinformation.
“I asked the Prime Minister and ministers if they were aware of any orchestrated effort to elect a Liberal Party of Canada minority. They were not,” Mr. Johnston wrote in responding to a Feb. 17 Globe and Mail report that outlined the desire by Chinese diplomats to help elect a Liberal government in the 2021 election.
Mr. Johnston also reviewed intelligence related to The Globe’s report that CSIS had warned the Prime Minister on at least two occasions that government MPs should be cautious in dealing with former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Michael Chan, now deputy mayor of Markham, Ont.
“The recommendations made to the Prime Minister and other ministers about Mr. Chan are confidential,” he wrote. “I have seen no evidence that any recommendation has been ignored.”
Mr. Johnston decried the leaks, calling them “destructive and dangerous” and saying it is a “matter of urgency” that the leakers be caught.
“I recognize that absent the leaks, I would not have been appointed to undertake my work. However, that does not justify the leaks, which risk great harm to the Canadian interest.”
When he was named special rapporteur in response to the furour over Chinese government interference, Mr. Johnston said he was convinced a public inquiry would be necessary.
“But my conclusion is that, in light of the material and information that would lie at the heart of any inquiry, it could not be done in public,” Mr. Johnston wrote. “Now that I have reviewed it [files] I understand why it is treated so sensitively: Foreign adversaries would readily discern sources and methods from this information. It could endanger people.”
Mr. Johnston said he will hold his own public hearings, particularly with Canadians in communities targeted by China such as Hong Kong pro-democracy dissidents, Uyghurs and Canadians who support Taiwan and Tibet. His next report is due in October.
“These hearings will not focus on ‘who knew what and what did they do about it,’ " Mr. Johnston said.
Mr. Johnston’s refusal to recommend a public inquiry angered the opposition parties, who promised to keep advocating for one.
“David Johnston is shamefully helping the Prime Minister cover up Beijing’s attacks on our democracy. This is outrageous, but not surprising,” Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre told reporters in Quebec City.
He said Mr. Johnston is a long-time friend of the Trudeau family and served as a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation after he left the governor-general’s post.
“This report was rigged from the start and has zero credibility. David Johnston, a ski buddy, cottage neighbour and family friend of Justin Trudeau, was given a fake job by the Prime Minister and tasked with sweeping Trudeau’s cover-up under the rug.”
Mr. Johnston bristled about his impartiality, insisting he was never really a close friend of the Trudeau family.
“I have no doubt at all about my impartiality,” he told reporters, saying former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci gave him an opinion that he was not in a conflict of interest. “This kind of baseless set of accusations diminishes trust in democratic institutions.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh vowed to push hard to convince Mr. Trudeau to call an independent inquiry, but stopped short of saying he’d trigger an election by withdrawing parliamentary support for the government.
“I will be sitting down with the Prime Minister, making it very clear that I disagree with the finding of Mr. Johnston,” he said. “I will make it very clear to the Prime Minister that we are going to use all the tools that we have to continue to push for one at the federal level.”
Bloc Québécois House Leader Alain Therrien said Mr. Johnston missed the point in failing to call an independent inquiry.
“All he is saying is there is a problem with CSIS and the government, not that there is a problem with foreign interference.”
Mr. Johnston was critical of reporting from Global News, the TV network, including the allegations that former Liberal MP Han Dong had advised the Chinese consular general in 2021 to extend the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
“The allegation is false,” he said.
Mr. Johnston also said there was no evidence that China gave $250,000 to 11 political candidates in the 2019 election as reported by Global.
Global did not immediately respond to Mr. Johnston’s criticism in the report.
Mr. Johnston has asked the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), an independent watchdog, and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), a committee that reports to Mr. Trudeau, to review his conclusions, including secret findings.
He invited opposition leaders to take an oath of secrecy and look at the same report. Mr. Poilievre declined to do so.
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