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Johnston to launch foreign interference hearings in July, calls allegations of bias 'quite simply false'

Canada's special rapporteur on foreign interference David Johnston calls the allegations swirling around his objectivity "quite simply false," and says he plans to push ahead with his work, launching public hearings next month.

Questioned by MPs at committee on Tuesday about his role, his report into election meddling, his decision against a public inquiry, and allegations of a conflict of interest, Johnston said MPs' decision to repeat their attacks on his credibility "does not make them true."

"The issue of foreign interference deserves serious and robust debate. I will continue to invite disagreement on my recommendations, but will not be deterred from completing my work," Johnston said in his opening remarks.

Appearing before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee — which has been taking the parliamentary lead in probing allegations of attempts by China to interfere in Canadian political affairs — Johnston was in the hot seat for three hours. 

On his way in to the meeting room, Johnston told reporters he was anxious to speak about his work in order to be able to get on with the job, going on to tell MPs that he plans to start public hearings in July.

"Beginning next month, I will hold public hearings," Johnston said in French, speaking about his plans for the five months left in his mandate.

"For this work, I will be supported by three special advisers with expertise in national security, intelligence, law, and diaspora community matters," Johnston said. "Together, we will develop recommendations on the urgent changes necessary to protect Canada's democratic institutions and crucially, Canadians' faith in these institutions."

While Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre scrummed outside of the hearing room ahead of Johnston's testimony, he did not stay to question him, leaving that to his MPs on the committee.

During the hearing, the Official Opposition's questions started with a heavy focus on Johnston's past, 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 council he retained to support his work.

"I do not see a conflict," he said, also defending Toronto lawyer Sheila Block as someone who served him "faithfully" and produced "quality" work when Johnston was tapped by former prime minister Stephen Harper to take on a public inquiry into the Airbus affair in 2007.

"But that said, the conclusions in the report are mine. Whatever lawyers in practice or others do with respect to contributions to political campaigns, these are all on public record and well understood," Johnston said.

This questioning prompted Liberal MP Jennifer O'Connell to note that the Conservatives had 15 minutes worth of questions to the rapporteur they were so eager to have come to committee, and spent them not asking about the core issue of foreign interference.

Similar remarks were been made by other Liberal MPs, who also used their time to read into the record some of Poilievre's past statements extolling Johnston's credibility, which are incongruent with his views now.

As the hearing progressed, more questions about specific instances of foreign meddling connected to the 2019 and 2021 federal elections were raised, and MPs Michael Chong and Jenny Kwan — who both have been informed by CSIS that they have been targeted by Beijing — took turns asking Johnston to shed more light on what he's learned.

MPs from various parties also pressed Johnston on why he feels his work will give Canadians any more confidence that the issue has been fully explored, and whether the federal government is being adequately held to account.

Johnston's answers often pointed to the parallel work being undertaken by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and the National Security and Intelligence Review Committee, noting that no one is being asked to solely "take me at my word."

"I'm anxious that we get to the real issue here, which is foreign interference… And let's move with urgency on dealing with a problem which is very, very serious and is affecting, not simply our national security, but our citizens in very direct and immediate and difficult ways," Johnston said. 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh decided to attend to question Johnston himself, and in the hearing he went down a line of inquiry focused on on the former governor general’s "appearance of bias" and what underpinned his assessment that neither the prime minister nor his ministers have "knowingly or negligently failing to act."

"My question is about the utter lack of curiosity of this government, that despite clear and credible evidence of foreign interference, that in your investigation, and no point in time, did the prime minister or ministers ever actively or proactively ask CSIS or other security agencies whether or not members of Parliament were being targeted? Was there never an attempt to proactively assess threats… Was there never any evidence of that curiosity?" Singh asked.

In response, Johnston said he thinks he was "quite critical of the shortcomings of the government, indicating that we have been slow to react, slow to anticipate in many instances, and those must be changed."

"I'm in complete agreement that we have not had the kind of curiosity and particularly the flow of information," Johnston said.

Asked by a Bloc Quebecois MP about why, given past precedents, he still views a public inquiry as unfeasible, Johnston restated the observations that he made last month. The former governor general said given the sensitive material and information that would "lie at the heart" of whether the federal government did enough to confront the claims of interference, cannot be aired publicly, an inquiry at this stage would "not advance the goals of transparency or trust any further." 

However, in speaking about his coming public hearings, Johnston indicated that should there be relevant witnesses, whether intelligence officials or members of the public who want to participate in the hearings but fear implications for doing so publicly, he's prepared to hear testimony in-camera.

"I think it's quite possible, and very appropriate that in the public hearings one could have in-camera sessions," Johnston said. 

On Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued to echo what's now been months of Liberals coming to Johnston's defence.

"The approach that the opposition parties, particularly the Conservatives, have taken in terms of personal attacks, in terms of smearing David Johnston and his team are absolutely irresponsible and unserious. The issue of foreign interference is one that needs to be taken seriously and falling into baseless partisan attacks isn't worthy of the work that we need to do together as parliamentarians," said the prime minister.


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.

From the outset of his appointment, the former governor general 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. 

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

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.

"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.

Last week, the majority of MPs in the House of Commons passed an NDP motion calling for him to "step aside" as rapporteur, calling for Johnston to remove himself from the role as rapporteur given the "serious questions" raised. 

In response, Johnston dismissed this call and made it clear he plans to stick around, saying that while he "deeply" respects the right of the House of Commons to "express its opinion about my work going forward" his mandate is from the government and he feels that he has a "duty to pursue that work until my mandate is completed." 

Challenged Tuesday on his decision to dig in, Johnston said he believes the House vote was "based on allegations that were false, and that it would be wrong for me to simply to step aside and… let those allegations stand." 

Then, it was revealed on Friday that Johnston hired public relations, lobbying and crisis management firm Navigator "to provide communications advice and support." 

The questions about Navigator were few on Tuesday, and the hearing wrapped up without Johnston being asked how much the communications firm is being paid. Johnston said he is receiving "informal" advice from "a number" of others, but that guidance is coming free of charge.

Asked on Monday what he makes of Johnston tapping outside help to complete the job the government is paying for, Trudeau appeared to have no concerns.

"I'm not going to speak to decisions that the independent special rapporteur and his team are making to manage the toxic climate that they're operating in," Trudeau said. 



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