Former governor general David Johnston named special rapporteur on foreign meddling

Trudeau said the appointment was made after consultations with all parties in the House of Commons

By David Fraser in Ottawa

Former governor general David Johnston has been named as the special rapporteur on foreign interference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday.

Johnston has been asked to look into allegations of foreign meddling in Canada’s last two federal elections and recommend what the Liberal government should do about it.

That could include a public inquiry, which opposition parties have been calling for in recent weeks after Global News and the Globe and Mail newspaper reported allegations of Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

His recommendations, which could also involve calling for some other independent review process, will be made public and the Liberal government has said it will abide by the guidance.

In a written statement released Wednesday, Trudeau said the appointment was made after consultations with all parties in the House of Commons.

“Canadians need to have confidence in our electoral system, and in our democracy,” Trudeau said, adding that Johnston brings integrity, a wealth of experience and skills. 

“I am confident that he will conduct an impartial review to ensure all necessary steps are being taken to keep our democracy safe and uphold and strengthen confidence in it.”

Rachel Blaney, party whip for the New Democrats, said in a statement that the NDP respects Johnston’s commitment to public service. 

“It’s crucial that the government allows his work to be broad in scope and unfettered,” she said. “Canadians deserve answers to the serious allegations of foreign interference, and this is a meaningful step in that direction.”

The party added that the Liberals did not run Johnston’s name by them before announcing the appointment.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said in a statement in French that the government is using the special rapporteur to keep Parliament and the public in the dark.

“We can only conclude that Justin Trudeau does not intend to start the public and independent inquiry that everyone is seeking,” he said. 

The Conservatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A press release announcing his appointment on Wednesday said Johnston will step down from his role as the head of the Leaders’ Debates Commission, which arranges debates during Canada’s federal elections.

The release also notes that he has served on federal and provincial committees and the boards of more than a dozen public companies.

He is a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, a position he has held since 2018. The charity has previously said Justin Trudeau ended his formal involvement with the foundation in 2014.

Johnston was named governor general on the advice of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010, and his term was extended under Trudeau until 2017.

During his seven years as viceregal, he became one of the most well-travelled governors general in Canadian history, leading more than 50 international visits. 

That included trips to China, which is now the focus of foreign interference allegations. 

Shortly after delivering the throne speech in October 2013, Johnston travelled to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had recently taken power. The trip was intended to renew Chinese investment in Canada and overlapped with visits by two top Conservative cabinet ministers.

That was his first official visit as governor general, but Johnston had been to China about a dozen times previously during his academic career. 

In 2017, he faced criticism for meeting with Xi in Beijing the same day that Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and celebrated political activist, died in Chinese custody. 

At the time, Johnston told CTV News he raised the issue and China’s human rights record with Xi. 

According to a statement from the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, Johnston spoke with Cong Peiwu, China’s ambassador, in April 2020 about COVID-19 and strengthening co-operation on global issues.

Johnston grew up in Ontario and went to Harvard University, where he was twice named an all-American hockey player while captaining the Crimson. He inspired the character Davey Johnston in the 1970 romantic drama “Love Story.”

Johnston has law degrees from the University of Cambridge and Queen’s University. He was a law professor for 45 years and was also president of the University of Waterloo.

In 2007, Harper asked Johnston to be a special adviser to draft the terms of reference for the Oliphant Commission, a public inquiry into the business and financial dealings between former prime minister Brian Mulroney and German Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber.

Trudeau announced the plan to appoint an “eminent Canadian” to the role earlier this month, saying at the time that the government will abide by the recommendations.

A mandate for Johnston’s new role is being finalized and will be made public, the prime minister said.

The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians is also examining the state of foreign interference in Canada’s democratic processes since 2018.

Trudeau has also urged another spy watchdog, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, to look into foreign interference in light of recent concerns about possible Chinese meddling in the last two federal elections.

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2023. 

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