Trudeau picks former governor general David Johnston to probe election meddling claims

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tapped former governor general David Johnston to investigate claims that China meddled in Canada's last two elections.

Johnston was appointed governor general by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Former governor general to lead election interference investigation

9 days ago
Duration 1:48
Prime Minister Trudeau has appointed former governor general David Johnston to oversee the investigation into accusations of Chinese meddling in Canada's last two elections.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tapped former governor general David Johnston to investigate claims that China meddled in Canada's last two elections.

Trudeau said last week that he would name an "eminent" and independent person as a special rapporteur on election interference. He said the special rapporteur "will have a wide mandate and make expert recommendations on combating interference and strengthening our democracy."

Johnston was appointed governor general in 2010 by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He held that role until 2017.

Johnston is currently the head of the independent Leaders' Debates Commission an independent body that oversees leaders' debates during federal election campaigns. He will step down from that role to act as the new rapporteur, according to a news release from the Prime Minister's Office [PMO].

"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," Trudeau said in a media statement Wednesday.

WATCH | David Johnston is 'unimpeachable,' says minister

David Johnston is 'unimpeachable,' says minister

9 days ago
Duration 9:50
"He is, in fact, unimpeachable as a choice for the special rapporteur," says Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino. "I know he looks forward to starting that work very quickly."

Opposition pushing for inquiry

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have been pushing for a public inquiry on foreign election interference.

Trudeau said the rapporteur could recommend a formal inquiry and that he would abide by that recommendation.

Johnston played a similar role in the past. In 2007, Harper picked the then-law professor to draft the terms of reference for what would become the Oliphant Commission, which probed former prime minister Brian Mulroney's business dealings with German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber

The PMO statement said that all parties were consulted on Johnston's appointment, but it doesn't say to what extent.

WATCH | NDP welcomes Johnston appointment but still wants a public inquiry

NDP welcomes Johnston appointment but still wants a public inquiry

9 days ago
Duration 6:51
"This is a solid step forward," says NDP MP Rachel Blaney of David Johnston's appointment as special rapporteur to review alleged foreign interference in the last two federal elections. "Hopefully, what we'll see is a public inquiry."

NDP MP Rachel Blaney told CBC News Network's Power & Politics she is "content" with the decision to appoint Johnston — but the party still wants to see a public inquiry.

"Canadians need a sense of trust. They need to know their institutions work for them," she told host David Cochrane, adding that Johnston's work and recommendations need to be transparent.

"I think that Mr. Johnston is going to have to be held to a high account. Canadians are watching this very carefully."

Reacting to Johnston's appointment, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet issued a statement repeating his own call for a public inquiry.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is pictured gesturing at an announcement in B.C.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks during an announcement and news conference, in New Westminster, B.C., on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Prior to Wednesday's announcement, Poilievre cast doubt on the claim that the rapporteur would be independent.

"[Trudeau] could pick someone independent but he won't," Poilievre told reporters last week.

Poilievre said last week that his party will continue to push for a public inquiry into recent media reports that claim China took steps to ensure a minority Liberal government was returned in 2021 and that certain Conservative candidates were defeated.

Other reporting alleged intelligence officials warned Trudeau that China's campaign of interference included funding a "clandestine network of at least 11 federal candidates running in the 2019 election."

A panel of public servants tasked with monitoring election incidents reported that it did not detect foreign interference that threatened Canada's ability to hold free and fair elections in either 2019 or 2021. The panel did say there were attempts to interfere in both campaigns, according to reports highlighting its work.

But Conservatives called into question the most recent report — written by former public servant Morris Rosenberg — over the author's past affiliations.

From 2014 to 2018. Rosenberg served as CEO of the Trudeau Foundation, which funds and promote academic and public interest research.

Rosenberg's tenure was marked by controversy when it was revealed that Zhang Bin, an adviser to the Chinese government, attended a private fundraising dinner with Prime Minister Trudeau and donated thousands of dollars to the charity that bears his father's name. The foundation recently returned the donation.

Rosenberg's report recommended that the election monitoring panel's scope be expanded to include the periods leading up to election campaigns.

Tory deputy leader questions Johnston appointment

On Wednesday, Conservative Deputy Leader Melissa Lantsman questioned the need for a special rapporteur and pointed to Johnston's own affiliation with the Trudeau Foundation. The organization lists Johnston — who has worked at a number of Canadian universities — as a member.

"Maybe it would be best to find someone not associated with [the foundation]?" she tweeted. "Or, just call a public inquiry."

Wednesday's news release said that Johnston's mandate hasn't been set yet. Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino was asked on Power & Politics if Johnston's mandate would allow him to look beyond the campaign periods themselves.

"He will have a sufficiently wide and flexible mandate," he said. "He will have the kind of robust access that he needs to classified information."

Mendicino was also pressed to say how soon Johnston will put forward his recommendations. The minister didn't offer any specifics but did say Johnston's work is "urgent."


Darren Major

CBC Journalist

Darren Major is a senior writer for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He can be reached via email darren.major@cbc.ca or by tweeting him @DMajJourno.


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