The leaders of the two largest opposition parties are questioning the impartiality of former governor-general David Johnston in his new role as special rapporteur into Chinese election interference, citing his decades-long connections to Justin Trudeau’s family.
A day after the Prime Minister named Mr. Johnston to the post, the leaders of the Conservative, Bloc Québécois and New Democratic parties said nothing less than an independent inquiry is needed to investigate Beijing’s meddling in Canadian democracy.
And Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his Bloc counterpart, Yves-François Blanchet, cast doubt on Mr. Johnston’s ability to be an impartial adjudicator.
“Justin Trudeau has named a ‘family friend,’ old neighbour from the cottage, and member of the Beijing-funded Trudeau foundation, to be the ‘independent’ rapporteur on Beijing’s interference,” Mr. Poilievre said in a statement Thursday. “Get real. Trudeau must end his cover up. Call a public inquiry.”
Mr. Johnston is a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. Members of the foundation appoint its board and deal with bylaws and other matters for this non-profit, set up with a $125-million public endowment by the Jean Chrétien government.
Mr. Blanchet said Mr. Johnston should not have been chosen as special rapporteur because his friendship with the Trudeau family leaves the perception that he will go easy on the Liberal government.
“If you want to make the public to feel safe about the choice you have made, you should not pick someone who is notably a friend of the family,” he said.
Mr. Blanchet said an inquiry headed by an independent commissioner, approved by the opposition parties, would assure Canadians that the full extent of China’s activities had been investigated and give them confidence in any recommendations that need to be taken to discourage foreign interference.
“I will accept nothing but a public inquiry, independent inquiry, whose management [commissioner] will have been chosen by Parliament. Nothing else,” he said.
Mr. Johnston, who was appointed viceregal by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2007, has acknowledged his close friendship with the Trudeau family.
In a 2017 interview with columnist Paul Wells, he talked of knowing the Prime Minister since Mr. Trudeau was six, as both families shared adjacent cottages in the Laurentians.
“I have known him for a long time because our children played together,” Mr. Johnston said. “It’s been a friendship for a long time.”
In 2017, the Trudeau government provided $20-million to fund the Rideau Hall Foundation in honour of Mr. Johnston, who chairs the board. The charity provides scholarships for international education and learning opportunities for Indigenous people in Canada.
The board includes Dominic Barton, the former Canadian ambassador to China who seen as a booster of closer trade ties with Beijing, and prominent Liberals such as Mark Carney, the former Bank of England and Bank of Canada governor. Onetime Liberal finance minister John Manley, as well as former Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, also sit on the board.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters in Toronto that Mr. Johnston has the credibility to independently review the findings of two panels the government tasked to investigate Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
Mr. Singh said Mr. Johnston’s mandate should include looking at what the Prime Minister’s Office knew about foreign interference and if laws were breached. “In addition, he must look at whether the Prime Minister took the necessary steps to deal with those threats,” he said.
Mr. Singh added that he hopes Mr. Johnston will recommend a public inquiry, saying it is “the best way to get answers on allegations of foreign interference in our democracy.”
On Thursday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino called the opposition comments “discouraging,” noting that Mr. Harper appointed Mr. Johnston as governor-general. “He served in that role for seven years. He did it regardless of partisan stripe, and he is someone who puts country above himself.”
He said Canadians should trust Mr. Johnston. “In my experience, when you work with people like David Johnston, someone with the character, with the professional background, and with the truly remarkable record of public service, I think we can be confident that he is going to do this work without any prejudice toward partisanship or party affiliation.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said the government “will comply with, and implement [Johnston’s] recommendations, which could include a formal inquiry, a judicial review, or another independent review process.”
The mandate outlining exactly what the government expects Mr. Johnston’s duties to be is expected within days.
Stephanie Carvin, a national and international security scholar at Carleton University, said Mr. Johnston will need to look more broadly at China’s interference in municipal and provincial elections. If he rejects a public inquiry, Prof. Carvin said, “that is not going to wash.”
The Prime Minister launched two probes in response to criticism over the government’s handling of the issue after The Globe and Mail reported Feb. 17, based on Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents, that China employed a sophisticated strategy to disrupt Canada’s democracy in the 2021 election campaign. CSIS documents also explain how Beijing tried to interfere in the 2019 election.
The all-party National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP), chaired by Liberal MP David McGuinty, will investigate foreign interference in elections, while the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), chaired by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps, will examine how investigations into Chinese election meddling have been handled by national-security agencies.
Mr. Johnston has long had an interest in China. Two of his daughters spent two years in China studying the Mandarin language.
He has a long distinguished career as a law professor, writer and university administrator. He was principal of McGill University and served as president of Waterloo from 1999 to 2010.