As he heads into the political sunset, Garneau says 'fragile' democracy must be protected

Heading into retirement, former Liberal cabinet minister Marc Garneau says Canadians need to be reassured of the integrity of this country's electoral system.

Former foreign affairs minister says he wasn't briefed about alleged Chinese interference

A man wearing a coat and a red scarf waves to the camera.
Liberal MP Marc Garneau waves as he passes journalists following a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

As he begins his retirement, former foreign affairs minister Marc Garneau says he's concerned about preserving the integrity of Canada's electoral process — though he says he was never briefed about allegations of Chinese interference in the 2021 election.

"I'm concerned about maintaining our democratic election process, and that is what concerns most Canadians," Garneau told CBC Radio's The House in an interview that will air Saturday.

"But I cannot honestly say that I was briefed on it. And so, I'm watching the development of this like everybody else," he told host Catherine Cullen.

Garneau served as foreign affairs minister for about nine months in 2021, shortly before and during the federal election that year. He said that while he was learning of the allegations of Chinese interference as other Canadians did — from media reports — he did feel it was important for the government to reassure Canadians as much as possible that Canada will fight back against foreign influence.

Former astronaut and foreign minister Marc Garneau left politics this week, appealing to MPs’ “better angels” to tone down the partisanship. In a wide-ranging interview, he talks to Catherine Cullen about the fight to free the two Michaels, Chinese election interference and why he regrets heckling his opponents in the House of Commons.

"We think of ourselves in Canada as having a rock-solid democracy. No, democracies are fragile and they have to be protected at all times," Garneau said. "It is important to reassure Canadians that we are dealing with potential foreign interference in our election process."

Allegations about Chinese foreign interference in Canadian elections — and criticism of the federal government's response to it — have roiled Ottawa in recent weeks. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc appeared before a parliamentary committee probing the topic Thursday.

The Conservative opposition has attacked the federal government over the issue. Party leader Pierre Poilievre has said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is "not interested in protecting the safety of the people serving this country. He's interested in protecting the Liberal Party of Canada."

Return of detainees 'happiest moment' in foreign affairs role

Garneau, who retired from federal politics this week, is no stranger to Canada-China relations. He was foreign affairs minister during the bilateral relationship's lowest point in recent history, when Canada sought to negotiate the return of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from Chinese imprisonment.

"This was a process that inched its way painfully forward for a very very long time," Garneau said, adding that it was his conversations with the families of the two men that affected him most.

WATCH | Marc Garneau makes last speech in the House of Commons:

'Thank you and farewell': Marc Garneau resigns

3 months ago
Duration 7:44
Former cabinet minister Marc Garneau announces his resignation to the House of Commons after a 14 year career in politics.

"That was the hardest part of my job, because when I spoke to them I had to carry the message that I believe we were making progress — not dramatic progress, but inching forward — when they were saying to me, 'Nothing's changed. This is been going on for 1,000 days. When is it going to end?'"

The return of the two men to Canada in September 2021 was his "happiest moment" in the portfolio, he said.

'I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't disappointed'

Garneau also served in the Trudeau cabinet as transport minister, a post he held for over five years. But his time at the head of Global Affairs Canada, which also included the government's response to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, was cut short when he was shuffled out of cabinet following the 2021 federal election.

"I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't disappointed. I was disappointed," Garneau told The House. But it's the prime minister's role to decide who serves in cabinet, he said, so he went about finding other ways to contribute.

He went on to serve as head of the standing committee on Indigenous and northern affairs and the special committee on medical assistance in dying, which just delivered a major report.

Garneau said he promised his family that once that report was in, he would leave politics.

A call for a better politics

Garneau became the first Canadian astronaut in space in 1984 and has served as MP for his Montreal riding of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount since 2008.

He told Cullen that he had experienced the ups and downs of life in the House of Commons, which he described an arena that often prompts intense emotions. And he admitted he himself had fallen victim to intense partisanship over the years.

"I heckled, shouted — but over the years I got a lot better," he said.

"The really good politician in my mind is somebody who channels that that emotion into something positive."

Opposition members channeled some of that positivity with their sendoffs to Garneau on Wednesday.

Two men speak on a debate stage.
Marc Garneau listens to Justin Trudeau speak during a debate in the 2013 Liberal leadership race. Garneau eventually withdrew from the race. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

"He is a gentleman and an excellent politician but, personally, I will always remember him as a great Canadian who made history," said Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus on the floor of the House.

"We need to act more like the member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount did every day," added NDP House Leader Peter Julian.

Garneau also spoke about his occasional disagreements within the Liberal Party, framing them as questions of principle and politics that each MP needed to navigate.

"There are things that you say, 'Well, this is not a hill to die on.' And once in a while you say — very rarely — this is a hill to die on," Garneau said.

"But I don't want people to think this is dramatic. This is perfectly natural. It happens ... And the important thing is to stay true to your principles."


Christian Paas-Lang covers federal politics for CBC News in Ottawa as an associate producer with The House and a digital writer with CBC Politics. You can reach him at christian.paas-lang@cbc.ca.

With files from Catherine Cullen

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