Skip to main content

David Johnston is recommending public hearings into foreign interference in Canadian elections, but not a full public inquiry. This is a mistake.

Even on the basis of what Mr. Johnston has learned over the past two months as the Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, there is clearly an urgent need for a thorough overhaul of this country’s security and intelligence apparatus. The few months of public hearings and brief final report Mr. Johnston will produce are bound to be inadequate to the task.

A guide to foreign interference and China’s suspected influence in Canada

In his first report on Chinese efforts to sway voters in Canadian election campaigns, Mr. Johnston wrote, “My preliminary view was that I was very likely to recommend a Public Inquiry.” But having reviewed all the confidential material, he concluded that such an inquiry would not be able to report publicly beyond what he reported Tuesday.

Yet commissions in the past have held inquiries into highly sensitive matters – such as the Air India inquiry and the inquiry into the treatment of Maher Arar – that resulted in redacted but valuable reports.

Even Mr. Johnston’s preliminary report – which confirms the substance of The Globe and Mail’s reporting on this matter – points to the need for a far more extensive inquiry than he will be able to conduct in the few months remaining in his mandate.

After all, he states that “foreign governments are undoubtedly attempting to influence candidates and voters in Canada.” He identified “substantial gaps in the communication and processing of intelligence information,” though he found no evidence of “the Prime Minister, Ministers or senior officials ignoring intelligence or recommendations.”

It is clear that our intelligence and security apparatus fails to effectively gather, analyze and synthesize information and then pass that information on to the appropriate senior official or political leader. And it is far from clear that political actors are taking responsibility for what they know are efforts by foreign governments to interfere in this country’s affairs. The kinds of reforms required are so fundamental and so complex that they require the resources of a full public inquiry.

When the government first announced Mr. Johnston’s appointment, I wrote, “Whatever he decides, Canadians of goodwill should accept that decision. There are few, if any, figures in Canadian life whose word can be more trusted.”

I have not lost one iota of confidence in Mr. Johnston’s integrity or trustworthiness. But the events of the past two months, especially revelations of efforts by the Chinese government to place pressure on Conservative MP Michael Chong by targeting his family members in China, have convinced me that a public inquiry is required to restore public trust.

Mr. Johnston indignantly dismissed allegations that he was in conflict of interest because of his connections to the Trudeau family and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. “This kind of baseless set of accusations diminishes trust in democratic institutions,” he protested at Tuesday’s news conference.

I agree. But the unfortunate truth that we confront today is that critics have succeeded in undermining public trust in Mr. Johnston’s integrity. That’s just a fact – an ugly fact, but a fact nonetheless. An inquiry chaired by a sitting or retired judge would be better received by both opposition politicians and the public.

And though Mr. Johnston joined the Trudeau foundation as a member – though not a board member – years after a donation was made to the charity that was allegedly intended to influence Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he should have investigated that act of Chinese interference as well.

That said, better half a loaf than none. Mr. Johnston’s public hearings should reveal further weaknesses in our intelligence and security services, and he will be able to propose solutions. As well, the National Security and Intelligence Committee should review the classified elements of Mr. Johnston’s report and offer recommendations.

Pierre Poilievre was right on Tuesday to continue to insist on that public inquiry. But the Conservative Leader’s criticism of the Special Rapporteur – he claimed that Mr. Johnston was “a ski buddy” of Mr. Trudeau’s who had “no business in that job because it is a fake job that he is incapable of doing impartially” – is childish.

The Conservatives should end their boycott and participate in Mr. Johnston’s public hearings. And Mr. Poilievre should recognize the difference between expressing reservations about a potential conflict of interest and belittling a statesman who has devoted his life to the service of his community and his country.

Good can still come from Mr. Johnston’s hearings and reports, especially if the Conservatives seek to help, not hinder. But a public inquiry would have been better.