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Special rapporteur Johnston asked to testify before MPs on foreign interference report


MPs have reissued an invitation for special rapporteur David Johnston to testify before a parliamentary committee studying foreign interference, by June 6.

Opposition MPs teamed up to force a meeting of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC) on Thursday—despite it being a break week for the House of Commons—where MPs debated a Conservative-sponsored proposal to haul Johnston before the panel of MPs to explain his recommendation against a public inquiry into foreign election interference.

"It's essential that we do hear from him," said Conservative MP Michael Barrett, in trying to make his case issuing a formal summons compelling Johnston to appear within the next seven days. "We want to take a closer look at the conclusions that he has, take a look under the hood."  

Though, the Liberals were quick to accuse the opposition parties of further politicizing the issue of foreign interference, as the committee had already decided two months ago when Johnston was appointed to the role that he should appear. Johnston had accepted that invitation with the intention of speaking to MPs, after his interim report was released, according to committee chair and Liberal MP Bardish Chagger.

"I think it's irresponsible to drag this out, to make it seem that Mr. Johnston does not want to appear, when he's already clearly expressed his will to appear before the committee... And I don't think that we need to play political games, partisan games, by saying that he's resisting any appearance," said Liberal MP Greg Fergus.

After nearly four hours of back-and-forth over a series of amendments seeking to affirm the committee's past call for a public inquiry, and deliberation over what Chagger described as an ever-evolving ranking of which upcoming witnesses should be prioritized, the committee agreed to ask Johnston to testify for three hours, unaccompanied, no later than June 6.

In the end, the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois voted against the final version of the motion, even though non-binding wording calling on the government to begin consultations towards launching a public inquiry within two weeks was maintained.

The motion was also updated to include a call for the opposition party leaders to accept Johnston's recommendation to receive security clearances to review the full confidential annex of his report.

This call came with NDP-injected language: "provided those leaders are able to speak as freely about conclusions based on this intelligence as Mr. Johnston, the prime minister, and other members of the privy council."

"Conservatives voted against the main motion that saw the Liberal-NDP cover-up coalition work together to silence the opposition on Beijing’s interference," said Conservative spokesperson Sebastian Skamski in an email to CTV News.

On Tuesday, Johnston issued his first report as the special rapporteur looking into foreign interference, in which he highlighted serious shortcomings within Canada's intelligence apparatus, but said he found no evidence to suggest the federal government knowingly or negligently failed to act.

He ruled that a public inquiry was not necessary, a decision he said he took on the basis that the key pieces of sensitive classified information that would inform Canadians on questions such as who knew what and when, "cannot be disclosed publicly" and would essentially duplicate the work he's undertaken in the last two months.

Johnston recommending against an inquiry was quickly panned by all of the federal opposition parties who continue to insist the issue merits a proper— and as public as possible—airing of all the facts, to reassure Canadians.

The letter requesting the meeting—signed by all Conservative, Bloc Quebecois and NDP MPs who sit on PROC—called Johnston's rejection of an inquiry "a slap in the face to diaspora groups who are subject to abuse and intimidation by hostile foreign governments and all Canadians rightly concerned about foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections and future elections."

"Our job is to focus on Canadians and what they need to see to feel clarity and trust in their systems. And right now we're seeing that erode through this bit-by-bit process, where things keep coming out in the media. It's, quite concerning," said NDP MP Rachel Blaney. "It's disappointing that we're here, and I think it really outlines the reality that Canadians need to see a process that is transparent and clear, that they can have trust in. This process is certainty not feeling to be that."

Reporting by the Globe and Mail and Global News over the last six months on allegations of attempts from Beijing to interfere in Canadian democracy—some of which Johnston has suggested have been "misconstrued"— have led to PROC holding more than a dozen meetings on the issue. Since November, the committee has heard from senior federal officials, party representatives, intelligence experts as well as current and former MPs.

In his report, Johnston said that part of his work reviewing "all of the relevant facts" over the last two months and that included taking in PROC's hearings. From which, he made the following observation: "While those proceedings have certainly included an element of political theatre, MPs have asked insightful questions and received important information from a variety of witnesses."

Resistance from the leaders of the two largest opposition parties to see for themselves the materials that informed Johnston's findings is the latest example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday, of his critics of being more interested in playing politics than being proactive.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wrote to Trudeau on Thursday to confirm his intention to receive the necessary security clearance to access Johnston's confidential annex, with conditions. In the letter, Singh also stated that he "profoundly" disagrees with Trudeau's decision to take Johnston's advice to not call an inquiry.

Singh's conditions on pursuing security clearance are that members of his team can accompany him to fill the spots left vacant by Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, and they receive a briefing by officials explaining the impact of the confidentiality on his ability to speak publicly on the issue of foreign interference going forward.

"In his report, Mr. Johnston wrote that he insisted on an 'unprecedented' ability to discuss intelligence matters. I expect that I would be able to speak as freely about my conclusions based on the intelligence I am allowed to view and that my ability to be critical of the government’s actions will not be constrained. I will be seeking assurances on this point in writing," Singh stated in his letter to the prime minister.

Trudeau—who appointed Johnston to the role amid pressure to address heightened concerns around the threat of foreign meddling in Canadian affairs—stands behind the former governor general's decision to hold hearings.

During Thursday's meeting, Liberal MPs repeatedly emphasized how they felt the response of the opposition in regards to Johnston's report was "appalling," and "regrettable."

"You have individuals here saying that they want to get to the truth, and yet their party leaders will not even get briefed from a national security perspective on the intelligence that underpins all of the conclusions that Mr. Johnston has come to. So, you know, to me, it's hard to take the debate here in good faith, and quite frankly, it sort of makes me angry," said Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull. 




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