Former governor-general David Johnston abruptly resigned Friday as the government’s beleaguered special rapporteur on Chinese state interference, citing the “highly partisan atmosphere” and urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appoint a respected Canadian with national-security experience to carry on the role.
The leaders of the Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and New Democrats, however, immediately called on the Prime Minister to set up a public inquiry and to work with all parties to counter foreign interference.
Mr. Johnston, whom Mr. Trudeau appointed in March over the objections of opposition parties in the minority Parliament, stuck to his opinion that an independent inquiry is not needed.
The opposition parties have voted on three occasions for a public inquiry headed by a judge with full subpoena powers and the ability to cross-examine witnesses. In the most recent vote on May 31, the Commons voted for the removal of Mr. Johnston as special rapporteur. Mr. Johnston and Mr. Trudeau refused.
“My objective was to build trust in our democratic institutions. I have concluded, given the highly partisan atmosphere around my appointment and work, my leadership has had the opposite effect,” Mr. Johnston wrote in a resignation letter to Mr. Trudeau.
Mr. Johnston urged the Prime Minister to name someone to conduct hearings over the summer to listen to the views of groups targeted by Chinese interference. His plan was also to hear from national-security experts on how to combat Beijing foreign interference in what the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has called the greatest threat to Canadian national security.
“I encourage you to appoint a respected person, with national security experience, to complete the work that I recommended in my first report,” he wrote. “Ideally you would consult with opposition parties to identify suitable candidates to lead this effort.”
Late Friday, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc issued a statement accusing the Conservative Party of driving Mr. Johnston out of his job, citing its “partisan attacks.” He did not say, however, whether the government will name a public inquiry, but indicated he was open to talks with the opposition parties.
“The Prime Minister has tasked me with consulting with experts and opposition parties on next steps and to assess who is best to lead the work,” he said.
The Privy Council Office, which oversees the bureaucracy and reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office, issued a statement saying work will continue on foreign interference by the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, which oversees CSIS, and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre accused the Prime Minister of destroying the “reputation of a former Governor General all to cover up his own refusal to defend Canada from foreign interests and threats.
“He must end his cover-up, stop hiding and call a full public inquiry into Beijing’s interference,” he said in a statement.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who broke with the government over Mr. Johnston’s appointment while refusing to withdraw the party’s Commons support for the Liberals, urged Mr. Trudeau to heed the calls of the majority in Parliament.
“The problem from the start was that Mr. Johnston answered to the Prime Minister and that is why we are still asking for a process that is independent from this government and will put Canadians first,” Mr. Singh said.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet also said the only acceptable recourse is an independent public inquiry.
Mr. Johnston’s first report, tabled on May 23, was met with derision from the opposition after he concluded there was no evidence the government ignored CSIS reports on Chinese election interference. The report did acknowledge Beijing’s attempt to intimidate Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong but did not the mention targeting of former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and NDP MP Jenny Kwan.
Mr. Johnston has come under criticism for his long friendship with the Trudeau family, for serving as a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and for hiring as lead counsel Torys LLP lawyer Sheila Block, who has donated to the Liberal Party and attended a private fundraiser in 2021 where the Prime Minister was a guest of honour.
Mr. Johnston’s resignation comes one day after he fired the crisis management firm Navigator after learning it also advised former Liberal MP Han Dong, whose conduct he scrutinized as part of his inquiry into Chinese foreign interference.
On Friday, The Globe asked the office of the Independent Special Rapporteur’s Office whether Navigator had pre-publication access to Mr. Johnston’s conclusions on Mr. Dong. It also asked whether the report was shared with Torys LLP lawyers who were not involved in the Johnston investigation, including executive chairman Rob Prichard. The office did not respond to The Globe’s questions.
Mr. Johnston’s report has also come under scrutiny after he conceded Tuesday to MPs that his findings that China did not orchestrate a campaign against the Conservative Party may have been based on incomplete intelligence.
On May 30, Mr. O’Toole informed the House that CSIS briefed him that “my party, several members of my caucus and me were targets of misinformation and voter suppression that was orchestrated by China before and during the 2021 election.”
At a committee hearing Tuesday, Mr. Johnston was asked why his findings that misinformation could not be traced to a state-sponsored source was at odds with Mr. O’Toole’s CSIS briefing.
He said that his evidence was given before CSIS director David Vigneault briefed Mr. O’Toole and admitted the stories didn’t add up and require further review.
In his Friday resignation letter, Mr. Johnston said Canada must undertake reforms to better combat foreign interference.
“The concluding pages of my first report identified numerous areas in need of study, analysis and reform, including, although not limited to, the effects of foreign interference on diaspora communities, legal and regulatory reforms necessary to more comprehensively address foreign interference, and a comprehensive review of the way in which intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to and within government,” he said.