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David Johnston decries ‘false’ claims, as hearings on foreign meddling to begin next month

A rift continues to grow between federal opposition parties and former governor general David Johnston, who insists he will not let the politicization of foreign interference and what he described as false claims deter him from 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

A rift continues to grow between federal opposition parties and former governor general David Johnston, who insists he will not let the politicization of foreign interference and what he described as false claims deter him from his work.

He says reforms are urgently needed to address “serious shortcomings” in how the Liberal government deals with the flow of intelligence regarding bad foreign actors.

Johnston, whom Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed to investigate alleged meddling in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, appeared before a parliamentary committee Tuesday for a marathon three hours of testimony.

He urged all parliamentarians to focus on facts to help improve democracy for Canadians.

“We hope to devote ourselves to have as much light as possible on the key issue: how is our system working? From our report: not at all well,” Johnston said, citing his first report on foreign interference released last month.

The second part of his mandate will include public hearings to be held over the next five months, during which government representatives, national security officials and members of the diaspora community are expected to testify.

Those who don’t want to appear publicly for fear of speaking out will have the chance to provide their testimony behind closed doors, or can submit information privately, said Johnston.

He said his work will be supported by three special advisers with expertise on national security intelligence, law and diaspora communities.

“Together, we’ll develop recommendations on urgent changes necessary to protect Canada’s institutions, and crucially, Canadians’ faith in these institutions,” Johnston said during his testimony.

He released a report last month that found significant shortcomings in the way the federal government handles intelligence about alleged foreign meddling.

“Methods of foreign interference are rapidly becoming more sophisticated. I’ve identified significant shortcomings to detect, combat and deter this growing threat,” Johnston said Tuesday.

He added that the problem of foreign interference has been growing in Canada, and the government’s ability to adapt isn’t keeping up.

Opposition parties agree that the 2019 and 2021 federal election results were not compromised, but they still say a public inquiry is the only way for Canadians to feel confident in their electoral system.

Johnston said a public inquiry is not the right path because making secret information public would run the risk of breaching the trust of Canada’s security allies and endangering intelligence sources.

Opposition parties were not swayed by Johnston’s testimony on Tuesday. Conservative MP Michael Cooper said his reporting was “whitewashed,” and NDP MP Peter Julian claimed Johnston’s testimony contradicted elements of his report.

Even as they continue to push for a public inquiry, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he will follow Johnston’s advice.

“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,” Trudeau said Tuesday.

Last week, the House of Commons passed a non-binding motion calling on Johnston to step down due to perceived bias. He had a friendship with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, which included ski trips the current prime minister joined when he was a child.

“The reason that I’m continuing in this position … is I believe the vote was based on allegations that were false, and that it’d be wrong for me to simply step aside and let those allegations stand as fact and truth. That would not be the right thing to do,” Johnston said Tuesday.

He defended his record, and that of Sheila Block — a lawyer whom he hired to assist with his foreign interference report, who has reportedly donated to the Liberal Party in the past.

He also denied having any meetings, dinners or contact with Trudeau in the past 40 years, saying the friendship was with his father.

“I have deep respect for the House of Commons and for its right to express my opinion on my work. I hear clearly the disagreement, and allegations (about) my integrity and independence,” Johnston said.

“Put simply: they’re false. And decisions to repeat them does not make them true.”

He said Block is a “pre-eminent counsel” who helped him in the past with a public inquiry he conducted at the instruction of former prime minister Stephen Harper, and that he had personally reached out to her to be a part of this work, too.

Johnston also said that Block has donated to other political parties, but did not say which ones.

Despite the ongoing controversy around his mandate, Johnston said he “will not be deterred from completing my work.”

“I’m anxious that we get to the real issue here: foreign interference,” he said.

“Lets move with urgency on dealing with a problem which is very, very serious and is affecting not just national security, but our citizens in very direct and immediate and difficult ways.”

-By Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press