OTTAWA — The man charged with recommending how best to deal with foreign interference in Canada’s federal elections will finally say whether he believes a public inquiry is necessary.
Former governor general David Johnston, the special rapporteur appointed in March by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will issue an interim report Tuesday on what he considers the best way forward.
Parliament Hill has been seized for months with whether Johnston will advise a public inquiry into whether the governing Liberals did enough to confront claims that China meddled in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
But his mandate allows for broader recommendations as well — and Johnston will announce his preferred courses of action during a long-awaited news conference at noon eastern time.
On Monday, former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole strongly criticized the process Johnston had followed to date in an online post.
O’Toole has suggested as many as nine ridings were affected in the last federal vote by what campaign officials believed to be a misinformation campaign against its candidates.
During the 2021 election, O’Toole took a hawkish stand against the Chinese regime and saw unexpected losses in ridings home to many residents of Chinese descent in and around Toronto and Vancouver.
On Monday, O’Toole, who is preparing to leave public office next month, said neither he, or current party leader Pierre Poilievre, were contacted by Johnston’s team until the final week of his interview process.
O’Toole said he and his former campaign team rushed to prepare for the meeting, but said his sit-down with Johnston felt like nothing more a “box-checking exercise.”
“You might understand how disappointed I was to learn halfway through my meeting that Johnston’s report was already undergoing French translation. I was flabbergasted and realized that nothing I was going to provide to the special rapporteur was going to impact his work,” O’Toole wrote in his post published online Monday.
“I was not really asked any questions or given any insights. It was a very strange meeting.”
In addition to the inquiry question, Trudeau has also tasked Johnston with recommending any other mechanisms or processes needed to “reinforce Canadians’ confidence in the integrity of our democratic institutions.”
His mandate also called for an assessment of the “extent and impact” of foreign interference in Canadian elections and to “determine what the government did to defend Canada against electoral interference.”
Johnston, named governor general in 2010 by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, is working with other national security agencies to identify ways they can better work together to combat foreign interference.
Opposition Conservatives are clamouring for an inquiry. Unlike O’Toole, Poilievre, the current leader, refused to meet with Johnston, describing the role of special rapporteur as a “fake job.”
Poilievre is deeply skeptical of Johnston, a former member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, which is under scrutiny for accepting a donation reportedly linked to the Chinese government.
The Conservative leader last week described him as “Justin Trudeau’s ski buddy, his cottage neighbour, his family friend and a member of the Trudeau Foundation, which got $140,000 from Beijing.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh describes Johnston as “non-partisan” and “trustworthy,” but nonetheless wants to see a public inquiry.
The Liberals have been weathering a political storm for months over whether they took the allegations of interference seriously enough.
An inquiry, while giving the government the chance to defend its actions, would also give the controversy more political oxygen — and it would be the second such investigation into the Liberal government in as many years.
It would come on the heels of last year’s Public Order Emergency Commission into the federal government’s response to the 2022 “Freedom Convoy” blockades in downtown Ottawa and at the Canada-U.S. border.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2023.
David Fraser, The Canadian Press