'Special rapporteur' Johnston says 'NO' to Public Inquiry on Chinese foreign interference

The former governor general says a public process is necessary, but stopped short of recommending a public inquiry that critics of the Trudeau government were demanding.

'Special rapporteur' Johnston says 'NO' to Public Inquiry on Chinese foreign interference
Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Pool Photo via AP and The Canadian Press / Sean Kilpatrick
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"Our democracy is built on trust in our institutions, democracy and each other," said Johnston during a Tuesday press conference. "Foreign interference threatens that trust and undermines the trust in our government's ability to protect our democracy."

"Canadians deserve answers into whether the government failed to protect our democracy."

The 'special rapporteur' said he worked "closely" with intelligence agencies to disclose what he could. He reached several conclusions about the allegations of foreign interference, including the "growing threat" posed by foreign governments attempting to influence political candidates.

According to anonymous security sources, Chinese diplomats and their proxies worked to defeat Conservative politicians considered "hostile" towards Beijing during the 2019 and 2021 federal elections. 

The top-secret CSIS documents outline how Beijing directed Chinese students studying in Canada to work as campaign volunteers and illegally returned portions of donations. They also explained how China spread misinformation and provided undeclared cash donations in the 2021 election.

Johnston acknowledged that common interference tactics included 'disinformation' campaigns and the "abuse of human relationships" but clarified that "individual pieces of intelligence must be viewed with skepticism."

He articulated that several leaked materials were "misconstrued" without the "benefit of the full context," adding, "Foreign interference is not usually embodied in discrete one-off pieces of intelligence."

A Global News report on February 24 named Independent MP Han Dong a "witting affiliate in China's election interference networks." The publication said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) surveilled Dong as early as June 2019, months before his election to Parliament.

A CSIS memo distributed through the Prime Minister's Office named him as a person of concern, with Intelligence urging senior Liberal Party staff to rescind Dong's nomination over alleged foreign interference, which he vehemently denies. 

"In a free democracy, it is not up to unelected security officials to dictate to political parties who can or cannot run," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In March, CSIS spearheaded an investigation to uncover who leaked highly classified information on Chinese election interference, which garnered "grave concern" from the federal spy agency.

"I am not at liberty to disclose information directly or indirectly that would provide classified information in a public setting," said CSIS Director David Vigneault, who added they regularly briefed Trudeau on foreign interference.

The prime minister wanted the federal spy agency to find the leakers who risk prosecution under the same Act before naming Johnston as 'special rapporteur.'

"The limited leaked intelligence and subsequent reporting have led to misapprehensions relating to incidents alleged to have occurred in the 2019 and 2021 elections," added the 'special rapporteur.'

"I have found no examples of ministers, the Prime Minister or their offices knowingly or negligently failing to act on intelligence advice or recommendations on the issues I have investigated related to the 2019 and 2021 elections," he continued.

On Tuesday, Johnston said a public inquiry into Chinese election interference is unnecessary but added he would conduct public hearings into materials that are not "classified."

"There have been widespread calls for a public inquiry from media, opposition parties and parliament through a motion passed in the House of Commons," he said. "When I began this process, I thought I would come to the same conclusion that I would recommend a public inquiry."

Though Johnston commented that a public review of classified intelligence "cannot be done," he recommended Trudeau invite national security agencies to review the conclusions of the Inquiry report and request the three Opposition leaders to those deliberations as part of a "necessary step in transparency and accountability."

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre previously dismissed Johnston's appointment, given he is a Trudeau "family friend." On Tuesday, Poilievre reaffirmed his disappointment in Johnston's appointment, calling him Trudeau's "ski buddy" and "cottage neighbour."

The prime minister said Johnston knew his father, Pierre Trudeau, and they were neighbours when Trudeau lived at Rideau Cottage and Johnston lived at Rideau Hall. Poilievre urged the prime minister to abandon his search for a 'special rapporteur' in March and call a public inquiry instead.

On March 23, the Commons PROC Committee voted 172-149 in favour of a Public Inquiry. However, the motion was non-binding, and the federal government did not act.

"Justin Trudeau has named a 'family friend,' old neighbour from the cottage, and member of the Beijing-funded Trudeau foundation, to be the 'independent' rapporteur on Beijing's interference," said Poilievre in March.

Following Tuesday's announcement, the Tory leader's sentiment did not waver on the 'special rapporteur.' Poilievre said, "[Johnston] helped cover up the influence of Beijing in our democracy…who interfered in two elections to help Trudeau win."

Johnston condemned the "baseless accusations" against him that he said, "diminishes trust in our public institutions." 

"I have been fortunate in my public life to have served as chair of or member of advisory committees or task forces on dozens of occasions over the years, with appointments by prime ministers, several premiers, several ministers and on none of those predication has my impartiality or integrity has ever been questioned," he said.

"Trudeau has been briefed on these matters for years and has done absolutely nothing on it for years except to keep it quiet," added Poilievre. 

On May 1, Conservative MP Michael Chong expressed disbelief after learning the Canadian CSIS failed to inform him a Chinese diplomat targeted his family over his motion to condemn China on its treatment of Uygher Muslims.

According to The Globe and Mail, a Chinese Ministry of State Security officer wanted information on Chong's relatives abroad to impose sanctions on them. They allegedly assigned the file to a People's Republic of China (PRC) diplomat from Toronto.

"The government [did not] take action to expel [Wei Zhao]," said Chong, adding they should have declared Zhao persona non grata and expelled him from Canada. Upon further review, Ottawa expelled the Chinese diplomat from Canada on May 8.

"At a minimum, I would have expected my government to have a duty of care to inform me that my family was being targeted," continued the Conservative MP, who added that many immigrants face similar intimidation. 

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