The lead counsel for special rapporteur David Johnston, who oversees the government-appointed probe into Chinese foreign interference, has not only donated exclusively to the Liberal Party but also attended a private fundraiser where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the guest of honour.
Elections Canada records show that Toronto lawyer Sheila Block participated in a private Zoom webinar fundraiser in late March, 2021, billed as a “Virtual Conversation with Anita Anand and Justin Trudeau.” Ms. Anand, now Defence Minister, was minister responsible for public services and procurement at the time.
Ms. Block, a senior lawyer at international business law firm Torys LLP, donated $7,593.38 to the Liberal Party between 2006 and 2022.
Ms. Block was chosen by former governor-general David Johnston to act as his lead counsel in March, 2023, when he accepted the appointment from the Prime Minister to assess how the government handled Chinese state interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
Former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson said Monday that Ms. Block’s role has the “appearance of bias,” although her Liberal Party donations and participation in the Trudeau fundraiser likely did not violate federal conflict-of-interest laws.
“What a mess,” Ms. Dawson said in an interview. “Johnston appointed her and they are friends and I guess they all support the Liberal Party … it’s all grist for the mill just to make the situation more unpleasant.”
Ms. Dawson said she always regarded Mr. Johnston as an “honourable man,” but also expressed disappointment in how the special rapporteur’s role has become ensnarled in questions of ethics.
“It is such a shame because you know Johnston was a really good governor-general. He was actually quite conscious of ethical things. He used to call me to consult from time to time,” she said. “It’s disturbing, but I just don’t think there is anything substantive there with respect to ethic rules.”
Conservative MP Michael Cooper said Mr. Johnston will have a lot to answer for Tuesday when he appears before the Commons committee on procedure and House affairs.
He said Ms. Block’s appointment “calls into question David Johnston’s report. If this is a truly independent process then no partisan Liberals should be involved in gathering evidence, conducting interviews and drafting conclusions to the report.”
The special rapporteur’s office noted that Ms. Block and Torys had worked for Mr. Johnston on a previous commission initiated by Stephen Harper’s government and “have a strong record of professionalism and impartiality.”
Mr. Johnston’s office said Ms. Block’s political contributions “had no bearing on her work then, and they have no bearing on her work today” for the rapporteur.
The March, 2021, fundraiser, which took place when COVID social-distancing rules were still in effect, was virtual. The 2021 annual return of the Liberal Party records a $500 donation from Ms. Block on March 28, three days before the event.
The Office of the Special Rapporteur defended Ms. Block’s donations and noted that she had not actually met the Prime Minister in person before taking the job with Mr. Johnston.
“Like any Canadian citizen, Ms. Block’s political contributions are a matter of public record. Prior to joining the ISR’s team, Ms. Block had never interacted with, or been in a room with, Prime Minister Trudeau.”
Among the guests at the fundraiser were at least four other Torys lawyers.
NDP House Leader Peter Julian called Ms. Block’s participation in the fundraiser “highly inappropriate.”
Mr. Johnston’s interim report found no evidence that the Prime Minister and senior ministers ignored intelligence on Chinese meddling in the 2019 and 2021 elections. He blamed “serious shortcomings in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government.”
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 a long-time Trudeau family friend and served as a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation after he retired as vice-regal.
Mr. Johnston has been conducting a tour for his new book, published in January, even after he was tapped to investigate foreign interference for Mr. Trudeau.
His book tour for Empathy: Turning Compassion into Action took him to Toronto on March 15 where he discussed the publication at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. That was the day Mr. Trudeau announced Mr. Johnston’s appointment as special rapporteur.
On March 20, Mr. Johnston spoke at Algonquin College’s Pembroke campus in Pembroke, Ont.
The tour continued in Calgary on April 11, before heading to Edmonton’s Concordia University on April 13.
Mr. Johnston also spoke May 9 at the University of Waterloo and May 28 in Almonte, Ont.
Mr. Julian said investigating meddling by other countries is a full-time job. Probing “foreign interference is not something that can be a part-time gig,” he said.
“And that’s why we’re calling for a full public inquiry.”