Published May 24, 2023

Bloc, Tories reject Johnston briefing, as Trudeau questions Poilievre's seriousness

The prime minister urged his colleagues to open their eyes to facts over partisanship

By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

The Bloc Québécois on Wednesday joined the Conservatives in rejecting a chance to look at secret information that led a watchdog to recommend against a public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference. 

Both party leaders said they do not want to be caught in a situation where they are forced to keep such knowledge quiet.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged his colleagues to open their eyes to facts over partisanship — taking particular aim at Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre. 

"Pierre Poilievre is choosing to sit behind a veil of ignorance," Trudeau told reporters during an event in Winnipeg.

David Johnston, appointed by Trudeau in March as a special rapporteur to look into the foreign interference allegations, delivered his first report Tuesday which recommended Trudeau not call a public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference during the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

The allegations have embroiled the government for months after reporting by Global News and the Globe and Mail newspaper, which cited leaked national security documents and anonymous sources.

Johnston also recommended the government provide the necessary security clearances so other party leaders could look at the full report, including a confidential annex of materials he used to arrive at his conclusions.

The NDP, Conservatives and Bloc have all called on the Liberals to trigger a public inquiry into the matter, and Johnston added that at the start of his review he thought he would arrive at the same conclusion.

However, Johnston, a former governor general said the intelligence he was able to review must stay secret, given it deals with national security. As such a formal inquiry would have to be held largely behind closed doors. Instead, Johnston promised to hold his own public hearings to discuss the issue of foreign interference — but not the specifics of allegations. 

Johnston has acknowledged the difficulty of being unable to divulge the information he reviewed publicly and wrote while he understands opposition leaders do not want to be constrained by security laws — which stipulate such material cannot be shared — the issue is too important for potential future leaders of the country to intentionally remain ignorant.

Trudeau said he accepted Johnston's findings and wrote letters to Opposition leaders, inviting them to begin the process of obtaining the necessary security clearances. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said on Tuesday he intends to do that.

Poilievre however said that he would not be muzzled and panned the offer, vowing instead to call a public inquiry if the Conservatives form the next government. On Wednesday, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet joined suit, calling the opportunity "a dumb trap."

"It's for those who are not very careful," he said. "They want to say, 'We offered you to see everything, you saw everything, you cannot say a word — this is a secret.'"

"Then they will tell everybody, 'Everything is fixed because the leaders of the Opposition parties have seen something, which they can do nothing about.'" 

Trudeau says opposition leaders should review the substance of Johnston's report, given the gravity of the situation and singled out Poilievre.

"He doesn't want the facts to get in the way of a good political argument or a personal attack," the prime minister said of Poilievre. 

"Is that a serious leader?" 

Poilievre told reporters in Toronto Wednesday that Johnston is nothing more than a "Trudeau insider," given the former governor general's friendship with the prime minister's father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and his involvement in the foundation bearing the former prime minister's name.

Johnston said when he released his report that he found questions about his impartiality "troubling" and defended his work as well as his relationship with the current prime minister, saying their families went skiing together decades ago.

Poilievre said a judge with experience handling national security cases should be the one to decide what information needs to remain secret and what could be made public if an inquiry were called. 

"Justin Trudeau has something to hide," he said Wednesday.

Despite rejecting his own chance to take a closer look at the report, he said he will not stand in the way of review by Conservative MPs who sit on the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. 

Two Conservatives sit on the committee alongside colleagues of other political stripes, and Johnston has said they will be provided with the additional information and be able to say whether they challenge his conclusion.

NDP, Conservative and Bloc MPs on the House of Commons procedure committee all signed a letter Wednesday asking for Johnston to appear before them to answer questions about his decision not to recommend a public inquiry.

The letter, shared by Conservative MP Michael Cooper on social media Wednesday, called Johnston's decision "a slap in the face to diaspora groups who are subject to abuse and intimidation by hostile foreign governments."

Banner image: Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet speaks with reporters in the Foyer of the House of Commons, Wednesday, May 24, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2023. 

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