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Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc spoke at a news conference after the resignation of David Johnston, in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on June 10, 2023.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The opposition parties say they are ready to co-operate with the Liberal government on naming a judge to head a public inquiry into Beijing’s foreign interference in Canadian democracy, but they want the investigation to be wrapped up before the next election.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc opened the door to a public inquiry on Saturday in the aftermath of former governor-general David Johnston’s abrupt resignation as special rapporteur on Chinese state interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

But Mr. LeBlanc said the opposition parties, which voted on three occasions in the minority Parliament for a public inquiry, must present the government with the name of a distinguished Canadian to head the commission and to lay out the terms of reference, including measures to protect highly classified intelligence.

He said the government has not ruled out naming another special rapporteur to hold hearings over the summer if the opposition parties are unable to come up with acceptable terms of reference and an eminent judge to head an independent inquiry.

At a news conference Sunday, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said he will work with other parties to get a public inquiry under way “right away,” saying it must be headed by someone who is “independent and unbiased in doing a thorough and public investigation.”

He stressed an inquiry must start quickly in case of a possible election. In a normal election cycle, the next vote would take place in 2025, but the government – currently supported by the NDP on confidence votes in exchange for actions on measures such as dental care and labour rights – could fall before then.

“We need to have terms of reference that have tight timelines to have the hearings occur as quickly as possible to get all the truth on the table before the next election,” Mr. Poilievre said. “The last thing we need is for the truth to be hidden in the next election so there is no accountability.”

Anyone who heads an independent inquiry must not have any connection to the Trudeau family, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation or the Liberal Party, Mr. Poilievre said, adding that it must be “someone who has a track record of non-partisanship and neutrality.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has said a public inquiry should not just look at Chinese state interference but also the activities of countries such as Russia and India.

“I have no problem with that,” Mr. Poilievre said.

Peter Julian, the NDP House Leader who will be involved in the all-party negotiations, said Sunday that a public inquiry must be “rapidly” set up so it could report to Canadians within nine months. This would give Parliament time to enact measures to combat foreign interference before the next election.

He expressed confidence that the parties can come to a consensus on an eminent judge to handle the job.

Mr. Julian said the NDP wants to see terms of reference that also investigate state-owned foreign media and how to improve the role of Elections Canada authorities to counter and prosecute these activities.

On Friday, after Mr. Johnston resigned, Mr. Singh said, “We are also calling on the government to work with opposition parties on an action plan that can begin to address these gaps and ensure the trust of Canadians in our democracy.”

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet plans to hold a news conference Monday to lay out what he’d like to see in the terms of reference. Spokesman Julien Coulombe-Bonnafous said in an e-mail that the Bloc always wanted an independent inquiry, with a commissioner agreed to by all parties in Parliament.

Mr. Johnston had come under criticism from the opposition for his long friendship with the Trudeau family, serving as a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, and for hiring as lead counsel a lawyer who has donated to the Liberal Party and attended a private fundraiser in 2021 where the Prime Minister was the guest of honour.

Mr. Johnston’s first report, tabled on May 23, was met with ridicule from the opposition after he concluded that there was no evidence the government ignored Canadian Security Intelligence Service reports on Chinese election interference. The inconsistencies in the findings were raised at a Commons committee last week.

In testimony to a parliamentary inquiry last week, Mr. Johnston said he may have had incomplete intelligence when his report said he was unable to trace misinformation campaigns directed at some Conservative candidates in the 2021 election to the Chinese government.

On May 30, former Conservative leader Erin 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.”

At parliamentary hearings on June 6, Mr. Johnston said his assessment was based on information before CSIS briefed Mr. O’Toole. The CSIS director, who will appear June 13 before a Commons committee investigating Chinese foreign interference, is expected to be asked to clear up what Mr. Johnston acknowledged were stories “that don’t add up.”

The report said the Prime Minister did not know about warnings from CSIS of China’s efforts to target Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong and family members in Hong Kong before the 2021 election until reported on May 1 by The Globe and Mail, citing a national-security source. His report did not acknowledge that Beijing also attempted to intimidate Mr. O’Toole and NDP MP Jenny Kwan, which became known after his report was tabled.

In the coming days, Mr. LeBlanc said he will hold talks with legal and national-security experts and specifically the opposition on a public inquiry.

But Mr. LeBlanc said the opposition must take the offer seriously and put forward suggestions on who could lead a public inquiry and the terms of references that include measures to safeguard sensitive national-security information.

“We are now giving the opposition parties something they have asked for: a chance to have input into the process and not just stand up in Question Period and demand a public inquiry and not offer any constructive suggestions,” he said.

He said many eminent Canadians might not want to take on the job given what he called the partisan attacks on Mr. Johnston.

“If we can lower the partisan temperature, have a serious conversation about a serious issue, we are confident we could find the right eminent person to lead this next public phase,” he said.

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