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Trudeau names former GG David Johnston as new independent special rapporteur

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has named former governor general David Johnston as the new independent special rapporteur who will be looking into foreign interference.

Tasked with helping "protect the integrity of Canada's democracy," Trudeau has announced his intention to appoint Johnston, following consultations with all parties in the House of Commons.

"Canadians need to have confidence in our electoral system, and in our democracy. As Independent Special Rapporteur, David Johnston brings integrity and a wealth of experience and skills, and I am confident that he will conduct an impartial review to ensure all necessary steps are being taken to keep our democracy safe and uphold and strengthen confidence in it," said the prime minister in a news release.

Trudeau had signalled on Tuesday that the person named for this role—which he first announced last week—would be revealed soon.

"In this new role, Mr. Johnston will have a wide mandate to look into foreign interference in the last two federal general elections and make expert recommendations on how to further protect our democracy and uphold Canadians’ confidence in it," read the release from Trudeau's office.

"We will be working with Mr. Johnston to finalize his mandate in the coming days, and it will be made public."

In an interview on CTV News Channel's Power Play with Vassy Kapelos, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino extolled Johnston as someone who has "unimpeachable credentials and character."

"We're very grateful that Mr. Johnston has agreed to take on this role. I think he will appreciate the magnitude of the issue, the complexities around it, the fact that these are pressing and important issues that Canadians would like answers to and advice on," Mendicino said.

"With somebody like Mr. Johnston heading up this important role, I hope we can bridge the partisan divide, work together, protect our institutions from foreign interference," he said.

Mendicino said he's confident that Johnston will have access to classified information as well as the documents and officials he needs to speak with to make clear-eyed guidance on next steps.

As for Johnston's timeline?

"We do want to make sure that we get his input as well on the amount of time that he thinks he needs," Mendicino said. "I think everybody is in agreement that these are pressing and urgent issues, and we'll move as quickly as we can. But, we also want to make sure we get it right, too." 

Johnston was Canada's 28th governor general between 2010 and 2017, appointed by then-prime minister Stephen Harper after a long career as a law professor. In 2015, Harper extended the normally five-year post by two years.

In 2018 Trudeau tapped Johnston to be Canada's first-ever federal Leaders’ Debates Commissioner, leading the independent body that went on to organize the official debates during the 2019 and 2021 election campaigns.

In this role—which he will be stepping down from to take on this new position—Johnston was to take the political arm wrestling out of the equation by making key determinations around who would be able to participate, and negotiating the terms of the debates.

One of his first orders of business will be to recommend to Trudeau whether a formal inquiry or other form of probe or judicial review is the best next step.

In 2007, Johnston undertook similar work when Harper announced he'd be a special adviser drafting the terms of reference for a public inquiry into the Airbus affair.

Noting the mixed views among Canadians and experts around a public inquiry, Trudeau has vowed that the Liberals would "abide by" the guidance of the person chosen on whether an inquiry is needed and, if so, what its mandate and scope should be.

The position is part of a suite of measures Trudeau has rolled out in an effort to assuage concerns over alleged election meddling by China during the last two federal campaigns. However, the federal Liberal government's actions on this matter so far have not satisfied opposition parties, who still want to see an inquiry called, with input from all parties.

At a minimum, the opposition had been pushing for the prime minister to work with other parties in Parliament to come to an agreement on who the "eminent Canadian" taking on this new role should be.

Trudeau did seek input from other parties on potential names for the rapporteur, though in a letter responding to what his office said was an invitation to contribute to the process, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said Tuesday that his party wouldn’t be submitting any candidates until Trudeau confirmed he'll call a public inquiry.

Reacting to the news, Blanchet said in a statement in French that without judging Johnston's record, Trudeau appears unwilling to launch an inquiry and he should not use the rapporteur role to keep Parliament and the general public in the dark. 

In an effort to keep a parliamentary probe into foreign interference allegations alive—prompted by reporting alleging specific attempts by Beijing to alter the outcomes of the last two federal elections—MPs are locked in a procedural showdown at a House committee over calls to have senior political staff testify.

NDP MP and member of the currently stalled committee Rachel Blaney said that the naming of Johnston was "important."

"We respect Mr. Johnston and his contributions to public service. It’s crucial that the government allows his work to be broad in scope and unfettered. Canadians deserve answers to the serious allegations of foreign interference and this is a meaningful step in that direction," Blaney said.

While Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has yet to comment, his top leadership race adviser and past top aide to Harper, Jenni Byrne, called into question Johnston's judgement, pointing to his work on the debates commission.

"What are the odds he concludes there doesn't need to be a public inquiry?" she tweeted.

Byrne also noted that Johnston is a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, an independent charitable organization that recently announced it was returning $200,000 it received seven years ago over a reported connection to Beijing.

The prime minister has not been involved with the foundation, set up in his father’s name, since becoming leader of the Liberals in 2013.  

Correction

This story has been updated to clarify David Johnston's term as governor general was extended by Stephen Harper, not Justin Trudeau.

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