David Johnston resigns as special rapporteur on foreign interference

OTTAWA – David Johnston says he will step down from his role as special rapporteur investigating foreign interference before the end of June, citing the highly partisan atmosphere around his work.

The former governor-general said in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday that his goal in leading the government’s investigation into alleged Chinese meddling was to help build trust in democratic institutions.

“I have concluded that given the highly partisan atmosphere around my appointment and work, my leadership has had the opposite effect,” he said.

Johnston’s appointment has been controversial, with Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre repeatedly accusing him of being too close to the Trudeau family to provide an impartial review of the government’s actions.

Last week, MPs passed a non-binding NDP motion calling on Johnston to resign due to that perceived bias. Johnston was a friend of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and took ski trips with the Trudeau family when Justin was a child.

On Tuesday, he told a committee that he planned to remain in office because “the vote was based on allegations that were false, and that it would be wrong for me to simply step aside and let those allegations stand as fact and truth.” ”.

All opposition parties have called on the government to call a public inquiry into foreign interference.

Beginning last fall, the Globe and Mail and Global News published a series of reports citing unnamed security sources alleging that Beijing had made a coordinated effort to interfere in the past two federal elections.

In March, facing mounting pressure inside and outside the House of Commons, Trudeau appointed Johnston as special rapporteur, tasking him with charting the way forward for the government to address the issue. He was asked to report by May 23 on whether that should include a public inquiry.

“A deep and comprehensive review of foreign interference, its effects and how to prevent it should be an urgent priority for your government and our Parliament,” Johnston wrote on Friday.

He reiterated the conclusion he reached in his report last month that a public inquiry would not be helpful given the limitations of national security laws and the amount of classified information that will be dealt with.

He suggested holding public hearings to educate Canadians about how foreign interference happens and how to handle it.

Those hearings, which were supposed to constitute the second part of his term over the next five months, were to include testimony from government representatives, national security officials and members of the Chinese diaspora. The work would be supported by three special advisers with experience in national security intelligence, law and diaspora communities.

Johnston said Friday that he will instead publish a short final report no later than the end of June. That will finish his job.

Stepping aside, Johnston encouraged Trudeau to appoint a “respected person with national security experience” to finish the job he started, suggesting he consult with opposition parties about who that should be.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said in a statement late Friday that he has been asked to consult experts and opposition parties on the next steps “and assess who is best to lead that work.”

“As I take on this task, our efforts to combat foreign interference in our democracy continue, as do the ongoing reviews of the classified annex to Mr. Johnston’s report, and the work of both the National Parliamentarians Intelligence and Security Committee and the National Security Committee. Intelligence and Security Review Agency,” LeBlanc said.

Opposition politicians said the resignation is another sign that a public inquiry should begin.

“When we tabled our motion for the special rapporteur to step aside, we said the appearance of bias was too much to go on,” NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement, adding that he believes Johnston is a man. honorable.

Singh said Johnston fell victim to the Liberal government’s “failed handling of foreign interference” but said his report described real and alarming gaps in national security.

“We also call on the government to work with opposition parties on an action plan that can begin to address these gaps and ensure Canadians’ confidence in our democracy,” he said.

Québec bloc leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said in French that he hailed Johnston’s dignified decision and that Trudeau now has no choice but to call a public inquiry.

Poilievre said in a statement that Trudeau has been “fighting for months trying to cover up the help he received from the communist government in Beijing,” and accused him of destroying Johnston’s reputation. He also called for a public inquiry.

A task force of top officials has monitored each of the past two federal elections for signs of foreign interference. While it reported that there were attempts to interfere, it concluded that none of those attempts rose to the level of threatening the integrity of the vote.

The director of Canada’s Security Intelligence Service, David Vigneault, told a House committee in March that the 2019 and 2021 elections were free and fair.

Poilievre has repeatedly said that he does not doubt the results of either election.

Conservative MP Erin O’Toole called Johnston an “exceptional Canadian” in a tweet of her own, thanking him for his service to the country.

“It is so disappointing that the PM has used his stellar reputation as a political shield,” he wrote.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 9, 2023.

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