Special rapporteur David Johnston conceded Tuesday that his findings that China did not orchestrate a campaign against the Conservative Party may have been based on incomplete intelligence, casting doubt on his report’s conclusion that a public inquiry into Beijing interference in Canadian democracy is not warranted.
In testimony before the Commons committee on procedure and House affairs, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pressed Mr. Johnston to explain a contradiction between his report and what former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole told Parliament last week.
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.”
Mr. Singh asked Mr. Johnston about his findings in his May 23 report that said “misinformation could not be traced to a state-sponsored source.” The NDP Leader asked: “How could you have such different conclusions from what Mr. O’Toole received?”
Mr. Johnston said his report was based on what he knew at the time.
“The evidence that we had before us that permitted us to come to the conclusion that you suggested was what was available to us at that time,” Mr. Johnston responded, saying his report was tabled before Mr. O’Toole had been briefed by CSIS director David Vigneault.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper later pressed the special rapporteur on this.
“Are you saying you didn’t have all of the material evidence and intelligence when you drafted your report?” Mr. Cooper asked.
Mr. Johnston replied: “We reported on what was available to us. What transpired between the director of CSIS and Mr. O’Toole, I don’t know.”
The Conservative MP suggested Mr. Johnston either misinterpreted the intelligence or the government withheld that information from him. He then questioned how Mr. Johnston could say there was no evidence of state-sponsored disinformation when the messaging was coming from Communist Party media organizations such as the Global Times.
Later in an interview with David Cochrane on CBC’s Power & Politics, Mr. Johnston acknowledged the “very real differences” between his report and what Mr. O’Toole told the Commons based on his CSIS briefing.
“Yes, there are stories that simply don’t add up and that requires further review,” Mr. Johnston said. “We’ll continue to review Mr. O’Toole’s concerns, which are very legitimate.”
Mr. Johnston acknowledged that he didn’t have enough time to sift through all available information – but maintained he saw enough.
“The amount of information available was an ocean and we saw a very large lake,” he told CBC. “I can’t tell you that we saw everything that one would liked to have seen, with perhaps more time, but we were never refused any access to any documents and therefore we were confident we came to conclusions based on facts.”
In Question Period, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre seized on the discrepancy to press the Prime Minister to fire Mr. Johnston.
Mr. Trudeau defended Mr. Johnston, calling him a “man of integrity” whose “judgment is top notch.”
Mr. Johnston was asked by the NDP Leader at the hearing to explain if he ever pressed the Prime Minister about his “lack of curiosity” on MPs being targeted by China and how it appears Mr. Trudeau never thought to ask CSIS or other intelligence agencies of his own volition whether any MPs were in the crosshairs of Beijing.
The rapporteur did not directly respond to the question, but said: “I am in agreement that we have not had the kind of curiosity and particularly the flow of information so we can act upon it.”
Mr. Johnston faced many questions from opposition MPs over his refusal to recommend an independent public inquiry despite three votes by the House of Commons calling for one.
Mr. Johnston maintained that a public inquiry is not warranted because it would require examination of classified information that could not be shared with Canadians. He also said a public inquiry would be too expensive and time-consuming.
Instead, he has proposed holding public hearings over the summer to listen to groups often targeted by the Chinese government, as well as national-security experts.
Bloc Québécois House Leader Alain Therrien said he was “blown away” to hear that Mr. Johnston was worried about the cost of a public inquiry.
“What is the price of democracy? What is the cost of democracy?” Mr. Therrien said.
Conservative MP Michael Chong, one of three MPs targeted by Beijing, said four parliamentary committees over the past four years have held 70 hearings and heard from 364 witnesses on Chinese state interference, but the government has failed to listen to calls for action.
Canadians “want action and not the hearings you are proposing. They want a public inquiry,” Mr. Chong said.
Throughout the three hours of testimony, Liberal MPs heaped praise on Mr. Johnston as a distinguished Canadian. They criticized the opposition for questioning the former governor-general, who said he found no evidence the Prime Minister ignored intelligence briefings on Chinese influence operations in the 2019 and 2021 elections. Instead, he said Mr. Trudeau was not informed of a 2021 CSIS warning on how Beijing was targeting Mr. Chong.
Mr. Johnston also came 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 from 2006 to 2022 and attended a private fundraiser in 2021 where the Prime Minister was a guest of honour.
“Do you not understand why people see this as an appearance of a conflict of interest?” NDP MP Peter Julian asked.
Replied Mr. Johnston: “I do not see a conflict. Shelia Block is a pre-eminent counsel. She is renowned for the quality of her work,” he said. He added that the “conclusions in the report are mine.”
He said he would not step aside despite the vote by a majority of MPs last week. “I will not be deterred from doing my work,” Mr. Johnston said. “I believe the vote was based on allegations that were false and that it would be wrong for me to step aside.”
He played down his long relationship with the Trudeau family and insisted he hadn’t held meetings or dined with Justin Trudeau for 40 years until he became Prime Minister, even though the opposition listed many occasions when he and the Prime Minister spoke publicly about their friendship.
“You have very clear connections to a very elite group of what some call Liberal insiders that perhaps you don’t recognize but that provided a very clear perception of bias,” Conservative MP Raquel Dancho said.
The special rapporteur has hired public relations firm Navigator, an expert in crisis communications, and Mr. Johnston told MPs he is now also receiving unpaid advice from Don Guy, then chief of staff to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, and Brian Topp, former chief of staff to Rachel Notley when she was Alberta premier.
Mr. Johnston told CBC that the Liberal and NDP strategists are helping him respond to media questions and are providing “another set of eyes” on how to get Canadians to read his 55-page report “so they can make their own judgment.” Mr. Guy reached out to help Mr. Johnston with free advice “because he believes this is a very important matter for the country,” Mr. Johnston said.
In his opening remarks at the hearing, Mr. Johnston warned about the dangers of foreign interference, saying he intends to unveil recommendations in October to safeguard Canadian democracy.
“Methods of foreign interference are rapidly, rapidly becoming more sophisticated. I have identified significant shortcomings of the government’s ability to detect, deter and combat this threat. This must be remedied urgently.”