Former governor-general David Johnston has been named as the federal government’s pick to oversee an investigation of the Chinese government’s interference in Canadian elections.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday that Mr. Johnston will take on the role of special rapporteur to review the findings of two closed-door panels that Ottawa set up to investigate Beijing’s interference activities in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
“David Johnston brings integrity and a wealth of experience and skills, and I am confident that he will conduct an impartial review to ensure all necessary steps are being taken to keep our democracy safe and uphold and strengthen confidence in it,” Mr. Trudeau said in a statement.
The Prime Minister’s Office said that 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 Prime Minister launched two probes into Chinese election interference 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, a former president of the University of Waterloo and onetime principal of McGill University, will review the findings of both reports and make recommendations to the government.
Mr. Johnston’s mandate letter is being completed and will be made public in the coming days, the PMO said.
The three main opposition parties say they want the Prime Minister to set up an independent pubic inquiry and insist that they have a say over who is appointed to head one.
“Without judging Mr. Johnston’s record, we can only note that Justin Trudeau is stubbornly not launching now the public and independent inquiry that everyone is calling for,” Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said in a statement.
Former CSIS director Richard Fadden, who also served as national-security adviser to Mr. Trudeau and former prime minister Stephen Harper, said he still feels a public inquiry is necessary, although he spoke highly of Mr. Johnston’s integrity.
“I think he is probably the only person in Canada that would add sufficient credibility to the special rapporteur process and that the Prime Minister’s decision might be at least partially vindicated,” he said.
Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who has also called for a public inquiry, said he hasn’t changed his mind, despite the appointment of Mr. Johnston.
“It has to be public. It has to have a judge or person who can compel testimony, to subpoena witnesses to get to the bottom of this as far as we can,” he said.
NDP Whip Rachel Blaney said the government must allow Mr. Johnston broad authority to conduct his probe.
“Canadians deserve answers to the serious allegations of foreign interference and this is a meaningful step in that direction,” Ms. Blaney said.
She said the NDP is still pushing for a public inquiry. “While we welcome Mr. Johnston’s appointment as a step forward and have full confidence in him – we still believe that a public inquiry is the best way to get answers and restore the confidence of Canadians.”
Jenni Byrne, a top aide to Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, criticized the appointment in a tweet where she noted that Mr. Johnston was appointed by Mr. Trudeau to be the federal Leaders’ Debates Commissioner, leading the body that went on to organize the debates during the 2019 and 2021 election – with formats and participants the Conservatives did not like.
“As the Trudeau Govt’ appointed Debate Commissioner, David Johnston appointed WE Charity’s [Craig] Kielburger to the debate commission and allowed a host from CBC, who sued the Conservative Party, to moderate the “fair” leaders debate. What are the odds he concludes there doesn’t need to be a public inquiry?” Ms. Byrne asked on Twitter.
In rejecting such an inquiry, Mr. Trudeau said the two panels will be able to see all classified material on the past two federal elections and noted that the Commons committee on procedure and House affairs is also holding public hearings
However, Liberal MPs have been filibustering the committee to prevent the opposition from calling a motion to have the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, testify about what she and Mr. Trudeau knew about China’s interference operations and what they did to stop them. The committee has also been denied access to CSIS documents.
NSICOP includes MPs from all major parties and several senators. Its reports are sent to the Prime Minister’s Office, which has the ability to redact information for national-security reasons. The committee, which meets in secret, has examined foreign interference in 2019. Experts say its findings have been largely ignored by the government. NSIRA also meets in secret and releases an annual report to Parliament.
Mr. Johnston, a law professor before he became a university administrator, was appointed governor-general by Mr. Harper in 2010 and served until 2017. He is also a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. Members of the foundation appoint the board of directors and deal with bylaws and other issues involving the non-profit, set up with a $125-million contribution from the Jean Chrétien government.
Mr. Johnston visited China a number of times in his capacity as a university leader and later as governor-general.
On July 13, 2017, Mr. Johnston made an official visit to China that became controversial when he met with President Xi Jinping in Beijing. On that day, imprisoned Chinese writer and democracy champion Liu Xiaobo was dying in custody.
Mr. Liu had been awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2010 for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” and his death marked the first time since the Nazi era that a Nobel laureate died in custody.
That afternoon, as Mr. Johnston and Mr. Xi exchanged pleasantries at Beijing’s luxurious Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Mr. Liu succumbed to late-stage liver cancer.
“You are an old friend of the Chinese people,” Mr. Xi told the governor-general.