By Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa
David Johnston filed his final — and confidential — report on foreign interference to the prime minister on Monday, ending his contentious term as special rapporteur.
Johnston had announced his plans to resign earlier this month, saying the atmosphere around his work had become too partisan. He pledged to submit a final report to the government before the end of June.
Late Monday, he did just that, but the office of the independent special rapporteur said the document was a “supplement to the confidential annex” of his earlier report, meaning it will not be made public. Instead, a two-paragraph cover letter from Johnston to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was released.
Trudeau named Johnston as special rapporteur on foreign interference in March, and tasked him with setting a path forward for the government in tackling the issue.
At the time, pressure was mounting on the Liberal government to take action following multiple media reports, citing unnamed national security sources, that accused China of meddling in the last two federal elections.
The director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, David Vigneault, told a House committee in March that the 2019 and 2021 elections were free and fair. The leaders of all political parties have also stated that they do not question the results of those elections.
Still, opposition party leaders called for a public inquiry into the issue, and Johnston was asked to report back by May 23 on whether that was the best option.
In that initial report, Johnston concluded that a public inquiry would not be useful given the constraints of national security laws and the amount of classified information that will be dealt with. He instead planned to hold public hearings to educate Canadians about how foreign interference happens, and how to manage it.
Those hearings were set to include testimony from government representatives, national security officials and members of the Chinese diaspora. The work was to be supported by three special advisers with expertise on national security intelligence, law and diaspora communities.
Days after the report was made public, a majority of MPs passed a non-binding NDP motion calling on Johnston to step down due to perceived bias, with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre repeatedly accusing him of being too close to Trudeau to review his government’s actions.
Johnston was friends with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and went on ski trips with the Trudeau family when Justin was a child.
In his resignation letter on June 9, Johnston said his objective in leading the government’s probe into alleged meddling by China was to help build trust in democratic institutions.
“I have concluded that, given the highly partisan atmosphere around my appointment and work, my leadership has had the opposite effect,” he wrote at the time.
In his letter Monday, Johnston said he has provided a revised confidential annex to the Privy Council, and it will be provided to the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency.
“To the extent that I or my legal team can be of assistance to the Government of Canada (or anybody charged with investigating this important issue) as it pursues its next steps on foreign interference, we will make ourselves available,” Johnston wrote.
The press release from the Privy Council Office states that opposition party leaders with security clearance will also be provided a copy.
“The government has received the Independent Special Rapporteur’s final report, which is classified, and would like to thank Mr. Johnston for his work on this important matter,” the Privy Council Office said in a statement.
“The report will be reviewed by the government and will be shared with the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, and leaders of opposition parties with the appropriate security clearance.”
As he stepped aside, Johnston encouraged Trudeau to appoint a “respected person with national security experience” to finish the work he started, and suggested he consult with opposition parties on who that should be.
Opposition party leaders had been in negotiations last week to decide on terms for a possible public inquiry.
Meanwhile, a June 7 letter from the chair of the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency — or NSIRA, as it’s known — was made public on Monday, reminding the government that Johnston’s report also called for it to disclose secret cabinet documents to the agency for its own review.
Since that time, the agency said the government provided it with a limited number of documents it originally withheld due to cabinet confidentiality.
The letter from NSIRA chair Marie Deschamps states that its review is distinct from Johnston’s work and asks for all documents to be submitted without any redactions.
NSIRA has begun a review of intelligence on foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections in response to media reports about Chinese meddling.
That review includes looking into the way intelligence was communicated across government departments and agencies.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2023.