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David Johnston resigns as foreign interference special rapporteur, citing 'highly partisan atmosphere'

Foreign interference special rapporteur David Johnston has resigned, CTV News has confirmed. In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Johnston cited the intense politicization of his appointment and work, as the reason for his coming departure.

"When I undertook the task of Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, my objective was to help build trust in our democratic institutions. I have concluded that, given the highly partisan atmosphere around my appointment and work, my leadership has had the opposite effect," Johnston said in the letter.

"I am therefore tendering my resignation, effective no later than the end June 2023, or as soon as I deliver a brief final report, which I hope to be earlier."

The Privy Council Office (PCO) confirmed in a separate statement on Friday evening that the government had received Johnston's resignation, and thanked the "accomplished public servant" for his work to-date and his "enduring commitment to Canada and Canadians." 

This move comes after the embattled former governor general testified before MPs this week, appearing insistent in his plans to forge ahead with public hearings next month.

In the meeting, Johnston called the allegations swirling around his objectivity "quite simply false" and indicated he was undeterred by them.

Now, he is suggesting that Trudeau forge ahead with public hearings, but pick someone else to lead them, a decision Johnston made for himself in electing to do them in the first place.

"I encourage you to appoint a respected person, with national security experience, to complete the work that I recommended in my first report. Ideally you would consult with opposition parties to identify suitable candidates to lead this effort," Johnston said, nearly parroting the suggestions that have been made by opposition parties for weeks.

"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 said in his resignation letter.

The government said that the parallel work of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) continues.

These oversight bodies have respectively been reviewing the state of foreign interference in federal election processes, and how Canada’s national security agencies handled the threat of foreign interference during the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

"The government remains committed to taking action to protect our institutions and uphold Canadians’ confidence in our democracy and will announce next steps in due course," said PCO in a statement.

Trudeau appointed Johnston to the role in March, as part of a suite of measures responding to concerns the Liberal government failed to share information, or respond adequately to the threat of foreign interference in the last two federal elections.

He was to first report on whether a public inquiry or other "mechanisms or transparent processes" were necessary, before broadening his look to ways to further shore up Canada's democracy to threats of foreign meddling.

The ex-vice regal had been receiving a per diem of between $1,400 and $1,600 per day, and was granted the ability to have staff, travel and "other reasonable expenses" covered.

From the outset of his appointment, Johnston has faced consistent personal and partisan attacks from opposition parties, accusing him of bias despite a lengthy career of appointments to non-partisan roles by political leaders across the spectrum.

In his interim report released May 23, while pointing to the real threat that foreign election interference poses and the need to address some serious intelligence gaps, Johnston recommended against a public inquiry, but announced plans of his own to conduct public hearings.

This prompted a new wave of fury, with the opposition calling it the latest example of how Johnston has a conflict of interest, an assertion Johnston repeatedly denied on Tuesday.

During the hearing, Johnston was peppered with questions over his close family connection to the Trudeau family, his past membership status with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation that's faced scrutiny over a China-linked donation, and the past Liberal donations from the counsel he retained to support his work.

David Johnston, Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, appears as a witness at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

"I don't believe I have a conflict of interest and I would not have undertaken this responsibility, had I had a conflict of interest," he said at committee.

After confirming earlier this month that Johnston had hired the crisis communications firm Navigator at the start of his mandate "to provide communications advice and support," his office confirmed Thursday he had since ended ties with the agency after the move drew criticism.

His decision to step away comes just a week after digging in his heels and insisting he planned to stick around following the majority of MPs in the House of Commons passing an NDP motion calling for him to "step aside" as rapporteur.

Johnston said then that he felt a "duty" to complete his work as mandated by the federal government.

The former governor general's decision to step aside now is being welcomed by opposition leaders, who are using his abdication as an opportunity to revive calls for Trudeau to launch a public inquiry.

In an interview with CTV News, Conservative MP Michael Barrett said Trudeau was the one to blame for Johnston's reputation being damaged, rather than his party repeatedly referring to him as the prime minister's "ski buddy." This echoed a statement issued by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre calling for Trudeau to "end his cover-up."

"It's time to put the rapporteur process aside, and call a public inquiry," Barrett said. "The House of Commons voted three times to have a public inquiry. And so, it's time for the prime minister to respect the will of Parliament… The prime minister should be calling the leaders of the recognized parties in the house today to begin this process." The Conservatives also want to see action on a foreign agent registry in short order.

“Unfortunately for Mr. Johnston, he has fallen victim to the bungled handling of foreign interference by the Liberal government," said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in a statement.

"When we tabled our motion calling for the special rapporteur to step aside, we said that the appearance of bias was too much to continue. I always thought that Mr. Johnston is an honourable man and today's decision shows that," Singh said. "We are still asking for a process that is independent from this government and that will put Canadians first."

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said in a tweet that he "salutes" Johnston's "dignified decision."

Blanchet said Trudeau now has no choice but to come to Parliament to select a judge who could chair an independent commission into Chinese interference in Canada.

Throughout Johnston's tumultuous tenure, Trudeau and the Liberals have come to Johnston's defence, indicating they had confidence in his recommendation against an inquiry, while decrying the "toxic climate" that he was operating within.

"The partisan attacks levied by the Conservative Party against the former governor general were unwarranted and are unacceptable. Democracy requires us to rise above partisan considerations," said Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc in a statement.

LeBlanc said Trudeau has tasked him with "consulting experts and opposition parties on next steps and to assess who is best to lead that work."



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