Special rapporteur David Johnston fired the crisis-communications firm Navigator Thursday after learning it also advised former Liberal MP Han Dong, whose conduct he scrutinized as part of his inquiry into Chinese foreign interference.
Mr. Johnston’s office said it decided to end its relationship with Navigator after The Globe and Mail reached out to inquire about whether the firm had worked earlier this year for the Toronto MP, now sitting as an Independent.
“The first Mr. Johnston heard of any relationship between Navigator and Han Dong was when he received [The Globe’s] questions,” spokesperson Valérie Gervais said in an e-mailed statement. “Mr. Johnston has decided, under the circumstances, it would be best to end their engagement with the ISR team,” she said, referring to the Office of the Independent Special Rapporteur (ISR).
She said Navigator was not involved in Mr. Johnston’s review of allegations against Mr. Dong, who resigned from the Liberal caucus in March after Global News reported that he allegedly advised the Chinese consular-general in 2021 that China should extend the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
Mr. Johnston’s first report, on May 23, concluded that those allegations were false. In testimony to MPs this week, however, he noted there were “strange practices, unusual practices going on” during Mr. Dong’s 2019 nomination contest. In his report, he said “there is well-grounded suspicion that the irregularities were tied to the PRC consulate in Toronto,” referring to the People’s Republic of China. But, he found no evidence that Mr. Dong was aware of these.
“In reviewing the intelligence, I did not find evidence that Mr. Dong was aware of the irregularities or the PRC consulate’s potential involvement in his nomination,” the report said.
Mr. Johnston told a House of Commons committee Tuesday that he did not interview Mr. Dong as part of his probe because the MP was pursuing legal action against Global News. “Mr. Dong, at that time, was proceeding with his own lawsuit and we felt this was something that he should get on with,” the former governor-general told MPs.
The special rapporteur’s office has previously said it hired Navigator to help with communications, including “media and social-media analysis,” media interview preparation and planning, drafting of communications materials and logistical support for the release of the May 23 report.
“Navigator has had no involvement in the ISR’s investigation or the development of his conclusions, and has not been privy to any classified materials,” Ms. Gervais said in a separate statement last week.
The Globe reached out to Navigator and Mr. Dong for confirmation of this hire but received no immediate response.
However, Ms. Gervais said Thursday that “Navigator has confirmed that it was never working for Han Dong and the ISR at the same time.”
In Question Period, deputy Conservative leader Melissa Lantsman said the latest controversy throws into further question the impartiality of Mr. Johnston’s report.
“David Johnston exonerated that member without even talking to him,” she said of Mr. Dong. “There is a conflict of interest and then there is this. What the hell is going on?”
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino defended Mr. Johnston and accused the Conservatives of preferring to focus “on partisan attacks [rather] than the actual hard work of fighting foreign interference together.”
Conservative MP Michael Barrett said Mr. Johnston has been beset with allegations of conflict of interest over his friendship with the Trudeau family and for serving as a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. He also hired Toronto lawyer Sheila Block as lead counsel even though she donated $7,593.38 to the Liberal Party between 2006 to 2022 and attended a private Liberal fundraiser in 2021, where Justin Trudeau was the guest of honour.
The opposition said the Navigator controversy adds to the narrative that Mr. Johnston cannot be counted on to get to the bottom of whether the government failed to heed warnings of Chinese election meddling, including attempts to intimidate former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong and NDP MP Jenny Kwan.
“With all of these conflicts of interest, will the Liberals recognize the damage they are doing and call a public inquiry today?” Mr. Barrett said in the House.
On May 30, Mr. O’Toole informed the House that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service 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.”
But Mr. Johnston’s report said “misinformation could not be traced to a state-sponsored source” by government.
“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 told MPs, saying his report was tabled before Mr. O’Toole had been briefed by CSIS director David Vigneault. He later told CBC’s Power & Politics that “there are stories that simply don’t add up and that require further review” by his office.
On Thursday, Vincent Rigby, a former national security and intelligence adviser to the Prime Minister, testified at the procedure and House affairs’ investigation of foreign interference by China. He said his former position “needs to be strengthened.”
He also recommended creating a cabinet committee dedicated to national security. “What I think would have been really useful here is if you had the Prime Minister, with key ministers, sitting around the table in a cabinet committee on national security, talking about this stuff on a regular basis, so we wouldn’t get to crisis mode,” he said.
“You’d be getting regular intel briefs and the PM would be able to talk about it with his ministers. We’ve never truly had that in this country,” Mr. Rigby said. “We’ve made a few attempts, but that’s what we’re missing. And I think that would have helped in this situation.”
Mr. Rigby condemned national security leaks to journalists, saying he doesn’t want these incidents to inspire federal public servants to emulate this. “It sets a bad example for others who are then going to start leaking documents every time somebody is a little bit upset about [how] they’re not being listened to,” he said.
“You’re going to have everybody in every department going, ‘Oh, well look at all the exposure that we got on foreign interference. Why don’t I try that?’ "