Once more, David Johnston steps into the breach
The former governor general's respect for public service has put him in the hot seat
In its first throne speech in 1994, Jean Chrétien's Liberal government promised to implement a national strategy for the "information highway." A few months later, an advisory council was appointed by the minister of industry to guide that work. David Johnston, who recently had stepped down as principal of McGill, was appointed to chair it.
Viewed from 2023, the council's first report, published in 1995, is both prescient and quaint.
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"Once the preserve of research scientists, the Internet is now used by tens of millions of individuals in their businesses and everyday life," the council enthused. "The user can retrieve scientific information, explore 'chat groups,' find movie clips, listen to songs, view pictures from a museum, read a book, sell a report, choose a ski vacation or preview the newest cars. The practical — and commercial — uses of the Internet are enormous and increasing daily."
That report is also a reminder of how long governments have been asking David Johnston for help — and how long he has been saying yes.
His latest task might be his most challenging yet.
'The public service gene'
"David is one of these people that has the public service gene," John Manley, the industry minister in 1994, said in an interview this week. "And if the prime minister of his country asks him to do something that is consequential, he would believe it is his duty to do it."
Manley and Johnston became friends after Johnston's work on the advisory council. Manley now serves on the advisory board that was assisting Johnston in his role as federal debates commissioner (Johnston resigned from that position when he agreed to be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's special rapporteur).
Manley said he has no doubts about Johnston's ability to do the job. "David is one of these people with a very firm north star," he said. "He's motivated by how he can be of public service."
But Manley feared from the outset that Johnston would be caught in the political maelstrom — fears that he raised with Johnston directly.
"I don't think it's fair that he gets attacked," he said. "I mean, I understand the game. An opposition leader is trying to get at the prime minister. [But] I don't want to see one of the finest of our population become collateral damage to that."
Manley said he knows a bit about that himself, having earned the ire of some Liberals after he accepted Stephen Harper's request in 2007 to chair an expert panel on the future of Canada's mission in Afghanistan.
The breach into which Johnston has stepped is perilous in its own way.
An aide to prime ministers of all stripes
Sensational media reports alleging malfeasance in the very foundation of Canadian democracy have run up against the Trudeau government's reluctance — or inability — to openly discuss matters that normally would be kept secret.
In lieu of official clarity, opposition politicians and pundits have rushed into the vacuum with the most salacious possible explanations. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has gone so far as to allege that Trudeau is advancing China's interests and knowingly allowed foreign interference to occur.
Obviously, this is not a sustainable state of affairs. That becomes more obvious with each new unverified claim from an anonymous source.
Last week's conflict over whether Katie Telford, Trudeau's chief of staff, would testify before a parliamentary committee was mostly a sideshow. When she appears next month, Telford is unlikely to say much more than the government has already said publicly. The opposition parties surely know that.
Ideally, the Trudeau government would have quickly identified another path to the answers that are so desperately needed now. It's possible the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians will get there. But while that committee works away in secret, the public burden now falls on an 81-year-old former academic.
Johnston may be the only Canadian to be sought out for major tasks by the governments of Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau. Mulroney's government made Johnston the first chair of the now-defunct National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy in 1988. Years later, Harper asked Johnston to draw up the terms of an inquiry into Mulroney's dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber.
The highest of these appointments, of course, was governor general; Johnston was nominated to the post by Harper in 2010. Harper also extended David Johnston's term as governor general by two years, thus ensuring that Johnston would continue to preside at Rideau Hall through that year's election.
If Harper had any concerns about whether Johnston could fairly negotiate what could have been a close or complicated election result — an election which Trudeau contested as Liberal leader — he could have ensured that a new governor general was in place. But Harper stuck with Johnston.
Eight years later, Conservatives are roundly dismissing Johnston's ability to render any judgment on how Trudeau's government should respond to allegations of foreign interference in the last two elections. In Pierre Poilievre's words, Johnston is nothing more than a "family friend" to Trudeau and a "member of the Beijing-funded Trudeau foundation."
(Johnston has since stepped down from his position with the Trudeau Foundation.)
Building trust in a climate of cynicism
The questions about Johnston's appointment underline the larger danger presented by this rolling controversy. Whatever Chinese officials may or may not have done, the greater threat to Canadian democracy is simple cynicism. There is a risk that these stories — even if no wrongdoing on the part of the prime minister or his office has actually occurred — will leave behind a corrosive suspicion about political actors and institutions in Canada.
This is the potentially poisonous morass from which Johnston is now being asked to rescue the country. And Johnston's terms of reference seem to give him wide latitude — both to investigate the situation himself or to hand the matter off to a separate inquiry.
Ultimately, it's what he does now that matters. One can question Trudeau's choice of Johnston or discount Manley's defence of a dear friend, but Johnston can at least hope to answer those doubts through his handling of the task in front of him. If his work is clearly rigorous and transparent, the doubts may recede.
Johnston should know a thing or two about building and maintaining trust — he wrote a whole book about it. Early on in that book, he hits upon the most important point: trust is earned. It's not given easily or automatically.
"Trust is gained through our actions and decisions, on our doing and not merely saying, on the basis of evidence that can be observed and measured rationally," he wrote.
That applies both to Johnston and to Canada's democratic institutions writ large. And rarely has it been more important for both to show themselves worthy of trust.