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David Johnston expected to begin public meetings on foreign interference next month

OTTAWA — Former governor general David Johnston says he will begin holding public meetings next month on foreign interference attempts in Canada's elections, and the ongoing politicization of the issue will not deter him from his work.
David Johnston, Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, appears as a witness at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Former governor general David Johnston says he will begin holding public meetings next month on foreign interference attempts in Canada's elections, and the ongoing politicization of the issue will not deter him from his work.

He said reforms are urgently needed because there are "serious shortcomings" in how the Liberal government deals with the flow of intelligence regarding bad foreign actors. 

Johnston, whom Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed to investigate the issue, is appearing before a parliamentary committee Tuesday for a marathon three hours of testimony where he urged all parliamentarians to focus on facts to help improve democracy for Canadians.

"We hope to devote ourselves to have as much light as possible on the key issue: how is our system working? From our report: not at all well," Johnston said, citing his first report on foreign interference released last month. 

The second part of his mandate will include public hearings, to be held over the next five months where people will get to hear from government representatives, national security officials and members of the diaspora community. 

Those who don't want to appear publicly for fear of speaking out, will have the chance to provide testimony in-camera, or can submit information privately, said Johnston. 

He said his work will be supported by three special advisors with expertise on national security intelligence, law and diaspora communities. 

"Together, we'll develop recommendations on urgent changes necessary to protect Canada's institutions, and crucially, Canadians' faith in these institutions," Johnston said during his testimony. 

He released a report last month that found significant shortcomings in the way the federal government handles intelligence about alleged foreign meddling. 

"Methods of foreign interference are rapidly becoming more sophisticated. I've identified significant shortcomings to detect, combat and deter this growing threat," Johnston said during his testimony. 

He said foreign interference has been growing in Canada, and the government's ability to adapt isn't keeping up. 

Opposition parties agree that the 2019 and 2021 federal election results were not compromised, but they still say a public inquiry is the only way for Canadians to feel confident in their electoral system.

Johnston said a public inquiry is not the right path because making secret information public would run the risk of breaching the trust of Canada's security allies and endangering intelligence sources. 

Last week, the House of Commons passed a non-binding motion calling on him to step down due to perceived bias 

because of his old friendship with Pierre Elliot Trudeau, which included ski trips in which a young Justin Trudeau and his owns kids attended as children.

Johnston defended his record, and that of Sheila Block — a lawyer whom he hired to assist with his foreign interference report, who has reportedly donated to the Liberal party in the past. 

He also denied having any meetings, dinners or contact with Trudeau in the past 40 years, saying the friendship was with his father. 

"I have deep respect for the House of Commons and for its right to express my opinion on my work. I hear clearly the disagreement, and allegations (about) my integrity and independence," Johnston said.

"Put simply: they're false. And decisions to repeat them does not make them true."

He said Block is a "pre-eminent counsel" who helped him in the past with a public inquiry he conducted at the instruction of former prime minister Stephen Harper, and that he had personally reached out to her to be a part of this work, too. Johnston also claimed she has donated to other political parties, but did not say which ones. 

Despite the growing rift between him and opposition leaders, Johnston said he "will not be deterred from completing my work."

"I'm anxious that we get to the real issue here: foreign interference. Lets move with urgency on dealing with a problem that's very seriously ... affecting not just national security, but our citizens in a very direct ... way," Johnston said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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