Former governor-general David Johnston vowed to stay on as the Liberal government’s special rapporteur on Chinese foreign interference despite a vote by a majority of MPs Wednesday calling on him to step down and for Ottawa to set up an independent public inquiry instead.
The non-binding NDP motion passed in the Commons by a vote of 174 to 150, with all four opposition parties voting for the measures and Liberal MPs opposed.
The result was a formal affirmation that a majority of MPs in the House of Commons have lost confidence in the ability of Mr. Johnston to do his job.
In the face of the expression of the will of a majority of MPs in the minority Parliament, Mr. Johnston released a statement saying he will not step aside.
“I deeply respect the right of the House of Commons to express its opinion about my work going forward, but my mandate comes from the government,” Mr. Johnston said in the statement. “I have a duty to pursue that work until my mandate is completed.
Mr. Johnston plans to hold public hearings this summer to listen to the concerns of Canadians in communities targeted by China, such as Hong Kong pro-democracy dissidents, Uyghurs, and groups who support Taiwan and Tibet. He will release a report in October with recommendations to combat Beijing’s meddling.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong, who was recently informed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that he was a target of Chinese intimidation because of his outspoken criticism of the authoritarian regime, said after the vote that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the issue is an affront to democracy in Canada.
“Parliament is the heart of Canada’s democracy. And elected members of the Parliament have voted twice for a full, independent public inquiry,” he said. “It would be difficult to restore public confidence and trust in our democratic institutions and in the electoral process without a full public inquiry.”
Former House of Commons law clerk Rob Walsh said Mr. Johnston can ignore the will of Parliament because he only answers to Mr. Trudeau.
“Given the subject matter of his inquiry, which is elections, I would have thought with the House voting for him to step down that he would respect that,” Mr. Walsh said. “But he is appointed by the Prime Minister so he stays in his post unless he chooses to resign or the Prime Minister asked him to resign.”
Before Wednesday’s vote, Mr. Trudeau told reporters that he still has confidence in Mr. Johnston and accused the opposition of playing partisan politics. The motion was brought forward by the NDP, who have propped up the government for the past year in exchange for spending on issues such as dental care.
“It’s understandable that political parties want to make partisan points on this, but the fact of the matter is David Johnston has served this country in extraordinary capacities for decades,” Mr. Trudeau said. “They’re continuing to do ad hominem attacks, personal attacks against David Johnston.”
Instead of attacking Mr. Johnston, the Prime Minister said opposition leaders should sign a confidentiality agreement to gain access to classified portions of the Johnston report that “are being offered to them to be able to understand and accept or disagree with those conclusions.”
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet have refused to do so, calling it a trap. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has agreed, but is seeking assurances from the government that he can speak about his views on the findings without the threat of violating the Security of Information Act.
“What is Justin Trudeau trying to hide here?” Mr. Blanchet told reporters. “We are not going to abandon this until the government abides by the fundamental rules of democracy and provides Canadians with all the facts in a credible process.”
Along with Mr. Chong, two other opposition MPs – former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and NDP MP Jenny Kwan – have recently been informed by CSIS that they have been and still remain targets of Chinese intimidation.
They only learned about Beijing’s threats after The Globe and Mail, citing CSIS documents and a national–security source, revealed in early May that Mr. Chong and family members in Hong Kong were targeted in 2021.
Mr. Chong said Tuesday that it should rightly be the Commons that makes decisions on national security and addressing foreign interference and that Mr. Trudeau’s decision to leave it to his hand-picked investigator, Mr. Johnston, and oversight bodies effectively bypasses Parliament.
One of the oversight bodies, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, does include MPs but is not a committee of Parliament.
Mr. Trudeau named the former governor-general a special rapporteur for foreign interference in March to look into allegations the Chinese government tried to meddle in the past two federal elections.
After viewing secret and top-secret CSIS documents, The Globe reported in February that China employed a sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy in the 2021 election as Chinese diplomats and their proxies backed the re-election of the Liberals – but only to a minority government – and worked to defeat Conservatives considered to be unfriendly to Beijing.
Mr. Johnston recommended against a public inquiry – which Mr. Trudeau accepted – arguing that classified intelligence could not be shared with the public.
Opposition parties as well as legal and national-security experts say a public inquiry, headed by a judge with subpoena powers, could hear secret testimony in-camera as has been done on other public commissions.
They have also criticized the Johnston appointment because he is long-time Trudeau family friend, served as a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation when he retired as vice-regal and his chief counsel as special rapporteur has only donated to the Liberal Party.
Meanwhile, a new report from Alliance Canada Hong Kong (ACHK), an umbrella group for Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in Canada, said Beijing’s foreign-interference activities in this country extend across numerous sectors, including academia, media, civil society, business and social media. The group said people who have immigrated to Canada from abroad are often a major target of foreign powers.
“Diaspora communities continue to bear the brunt of foreign interference,” said Ai-Men Lau, the group’s adviser.
The group said a primary approach used by Beijing to influence Canadian elections is for the United Front Work Department, an agency of China’s ruling Communist Party, to “support or sabotage candidates of interest. The fundamental goal is to advance Beijing’s agenda by either supporting candidates deemed favorable or sabotaging candidates perceived as a threat.”
“Foreign interference in an election can happen at any time: throughout a nomination race, during the writ period, a one-off event supporting or demonizing a candidate, or through continuous and organized interventions.”
The group said Canadians should be provided with tools to fight foreign interference and Canada should set up a foreign-influence registry where “individuals, organizations, and proxy-representatives actively acting on behalf of foreign principals in Canada” are required to register.