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Edward Johnson, chair of the board of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, appears as a witness at a standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 9.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The chair of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation’s board says the organization has been subjected to “unwarranted and unfair attacks” over allegations it received a donation that was part of a China-led foreign influence campaign.

Edward Johnson was before a parliamentary committee investigating the circumstances around a pair of 2016 and 2017 donations from Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin and another Chinese businessman, Niu Gensheng, that totalled $140,000.

The donations had been made in tandem with a $750,000 contribution to the Universite de Montreal.

The Globe and Mail reported in February, citing an unnamed source, that the donors were told by Beijing to offer the money in the hopes of influencing the new Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau.

But Johnson told the members of Parliament there was never an opportunity for the foundation to be part of any foreign interference attempts by China, and he cast doubt on accusations the money was paid to gain political influence.

“I have seen no evidence that would support that and based on the evidence that’s in the public domain, I’m very skeptical of that being the motive behind this donation,” Johnson said, adding one of the donors had previously donated to other universities.

He said he was not involved in the signing of the cheque to the foundation and had no knowledge of it.

The prime minister’s brother told the committee last week the Trudeau Foundation was not part of any foreign interference attempts by China.

Alexandre Trudeau, who has been involved in the foundation since its early days and was an executive director until 2020, said the donations from Chinese businessmen were negotiated before his brother became prime minister. He defended his signature being on the cheque used to make the donation, saying it was appropriate because the gift was intended to honour his father.

The prime minister has repeatedly said it has been about a decade since he had any involvement with the foundation.

Johnson said when the newspaper raised concerns over the donations, the Trudeau Foundation tried to repay the money and he sought to have the matter reviewed independently.

“On the basis of that allegation, whether or not it was true, it was my position that we must repay,” he said.

He was not able to say who the cheque was repaid to, or how it was done, but committed to giving that information to the committee.

The foundation’s former CEO and other board members quit on April 11, citing the politicization of the donations as the reason for their departures.

Pascale Fournier, the former CEO of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, previously told the parliamentary committee she resigned from that position earlier because of a breakdown in trust on the organization’s board of directors.

Fournier said tensions arose after she pushed for an independent forensic audit into donations made by Chinese businessmen – and received pushback when she insisted some members of the board recuse themselves from any such investigation.

Johnson said he couldn’t say the specific reasons why the board members resigned and said it was unusual, but caused in part by the national attention on the foundation creating pressure on members.

He was not able to provide any information on Fournier’s testimony that she discovered the China Cultural Industry Association, a group associated with Beijing, was communicating with foundation employees about omitting information on a donation tax receipt.

The website of the China Cultural Industry Association says it adheres to the “total leadership” of the Chinese Communist Party and was formed with state approval. It lists Zhang Bin as its president.

The Globe and Mail reported a different company was listed as the donor on the receipt. It says Millennium Golden Eagle International (Canada) was listed as the donor, which also lists Zhang as a chairman. That company, according to the China Cultural Industry Association, is one of its executive board members and was created with the approval of China’s Culture Ministry.

After Fournier’s resignation, Johnson asked the federal auditor general to look into the donations, but the request was denied because private donations and business dealings fall outside of its mandate.

– With files from Mickey Djuric

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