Opposition leaders split on Trudeau's choice for 'special rapporteur,' still demand independent inquiry into Chinese electoral interference

Since leaving the governor general's office in 2017, David Johnston has served as commissioner for federal leaders' debates and has been a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation member.

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Opposition leaders, except for NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, dismissed the former governor general David Johnston as a "special rapporteur" to investigate foreign interference by China.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Johnston to fill the "special rapporteur" role on Wednesday to investigate foreign interference in Canada's elections.

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.

Trudeau said he wanted his federal spy agency to find the leakers who risk prosecution under the same Act before naming Johnston as "special rapporteur."

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre dismissed the announcement because Johnston is a Trudeau "family friend."

"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," he said.

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 Trudeau to abandon the "special rapporteur" process and call a public inquiry instead.

Conservative deputy leader Melissa Lantsman also commented on the matter and rescinded her claim that Johnston was the "wrong appointment" because of his close ties with the Trudeau family and the Trudeau Foundation.

"There are plenty of eminent Canadians," said Lantsman. 

However, PPC leader Maxime Bernier did not mince his words in condemning the appointment.

“Of all the people in Canada who could investigate Chinese interference in our elections to favour his party, Trudeau chose an old family friend whose children he used to play with as a kid,” he tweeted.

Bernier accused Trudeau of being “disconnected from reality” with his latest move.

Since leaving the governor general's office in 2017, Johnston has served as commissioner for federal leaders' debates and has been a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation member.

Foundation members oversee selecting board members and other oversight functions, including scholarships to humanities and social sciences students. 

However, the organization became the centre of recent controversy after allegedly receiving a $200,000 donation — of which they actually received only $140,000 — from two Chinese billionaires with ties to Beijing.

Lantsman clarified her stance, stating, "This has nothing to do with the character of the former governor general and everything to do with the confidence that the people should have in somebody who may or may not call for an inquiry."

However, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh had no reason to doubt Johnston's capability and impartiality for the job.

"Johnston is someone of a strong reputation of integrity, and he is independent and nonpartisan. And so I trust him to do his work," he said.

However, Singh added that a public inquiry remains necessary, and he hopes Johnston calls for one.

"I still maintain that we need a public inquiry because Canadians need confidence in our elections." 

According to a national security source, Chinese billionaire Bin Zhang discussed the federal election expected for 2015 with a Chinese diplomat concerning the possibility of the Liberals forming the next government. 

Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) captured their conversation and learned the diplomat instructed Zhang to donate $1 million to the Trudeau Foundation and told him the Chinese government would reimburse him for the entire amount.

The Trudeau Foundation has since returned that donation.

Zhang also pledged $800,000 to the University of Montreal for scholarships and to construct statutes of the elder Trudeau and Chairman Mao Zedong.

The University of Montreal confirmed it never constructed those statues.

In a press conference, Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said he met Johnston a few times and considered the former governor general "quite the gentleman."

"However, if you want to make the population feel safe about the choices that you have made, you should pick someone who is not notably and admittedly a friend of the family," he said

Blanchet accused Trudeau of "beating about the bush" in naming Johnston to investigate the seriousness of a public inquiry into allegations of Beijing's interference in past elections instead of calling an investigation immediately.

"If, in the end, Johnston recommends a public inquiry, we'll have wasted three, seven or ten months for nothing," he said.

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