David Johnston will take up the post as Ottawa’s “special rapporteur” to investigate allegations of foreign interference in Canadian elections and society.
Johnston, who served as the nation’s governor general from 2010 to 2017, was named by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday as the prominent Canadian who will probe the interference issue and make recommendations to the federal government on how to handle it.
The Liberal government has been under immense pressure to explain what it knew about foreign interference in the 2021 election after the Globe and Mail reported last month that intelligence sources said China attempted to interfere in that campaign to help the Liberals win another minority government.
That report came after months of revelations from Global News about allegations of Chinese interference in the 2019 election.
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Now that Canadians know who the government’s rapporteur will be, here’s a look at Johnston’s background and the work he’s expected to do.
Johnston, 81, was named as governor general by then-Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010, and his term was extended when Trudeau was elected in 2015.
He left Rideau Hall in 2017 and currently serves as the Leaders’ Debates Commissioner, which arranges debates during Canada’s federal elections. He will step down from that position to take on the rapporteur role, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said in a statement on Wednesday.
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Prior to his role as governor general, Johnston was a professor of constitutional law for 45 years and is a highly respected Canadian legal scholar. He has also chaired or served on many provincial and federal task forces and committees, and has served on the boards of more than a dozen public companies, the PMO said.
In 2007, Harper named Johnston as a special advisor charged with drafting the terms of reference for a public inquiry into the Airbus affair, which became the Oliphant Commission.
He’s also an author, with 25 published books and a new one looking at the role of empathy in Canadian society released in January 2023.
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Johnston is also a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, according to the organization’s website. The charity recently made headlines after it returned a $200,000 donation it received seven years ago following a Globe and Mail report alleging a potential connection to Beijing.
The foundation funds awards and fellowships for doctoral research in the social sciences and humanities. Other members of the foundation include Trudeau’s brother, Alexandre Trudeau, along with prominent current and former leaders from financial institutions, top universities, a former Saskatchewan premier, constitutional experts, lawyers and writers. Its board of directors includes the former lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, a former mayor of Iqaluit, and leaders from prominent Canadian universities and firms.
It is funded mainly through a $125-million endowment received from the federal government in 2002 and like all registered charities in Canada, is prohibited by law from engaging in any political activity, including funding any entity — parties, candidates, nominees, riding associations – registered with Elections Canada
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has had no involvement with the foundation, set up in his late father’s memory, since 2013.
What will he do as special rapporteur on foreign interference?
According to the PMO, Johnston will have a “wide mandate” to investigate foreign interference in the last two federal elections, and will make recommendations “on how to further protect our democracy and uphold Canadians’ confidence in it.”
Whether an inquiry should be called, or if a different kind of independent process like a judicial review is more appropriate, will be one of the questions Johnston will have to decide.
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Opposition leaders and outside experts have been calling for the federal government to launch a public inquiry into the matter. Instead of calling one, Trudeau tasked the special rapporteur with the responsibility to recommend one or not.
The PMO said the federal government will “will comply with and implement his public recommendations, which could include a formal inquiry, a judicial review, or another independent review process.”
His mandate will be finalized in the coming days, it added.
Trudeau has also tasked the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians with probing foreign interference in the last two elections, as well as other ongoing processes.
In addition to those measures, Johnston will “identify any remaining gaps or areas requiring further attention to protect the integrity of Canada’s democracy,” the PMO said.
How long will his work take?
It’s unclear how long Johnston will serve in the role, but the federal government has been under pressure to act quickly.
Meanwhile, political reaction to Johnston’s naming has been pouring in.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has previously scoffed at the idea of a special rapporteur, saying it sounds like a “fake job,” and doubled down on the need for a public inquiry in the name of transparency.
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In a statement Thursday, Poilievre said Trudeau must “end his cover up,” and criticized the prime minister for tapping another Trudeau Foundation member.
Despite Johnston being named as governor general under a Conservative prime minister, Poilievre’s tweet echoes opposition attacks on the government’s appointment of Morris Rosenberg, a former senior public servant and CEO of the Trudeau Foundation, to author a report into foreign interference in the 2021 election.
It was released last month, and he determined that there was no foreign interference that “threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election” in 2021, while noting there was foreign interference that did not meet the threshold of alerting the public.
The PMO stated Johnston’s naming to the role followed “consultations” with all parties in the House of Commons.
On Thursday Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said Johnston is “close” to Trudeau, and called the idea a “superfluous” waste of time, since opposition parties will still demand a public inquiry.
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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said on Thursday that Johnston is someone of “integrity,” and called his appointment a “positive step.”
However, he said he wants to ensure Johnston’s mandate is broad enough.
“I do want to make clear that I want to make sure that that Mr. Johnston has a broad enough mandate to answer the fundamental questions that Canadians have: What did the Prime Minister know, when did he know it and what did he do about it when it comes to foreign interference?” he said.
“I still believe that Mr. Johnston has to launch a public inquiry to have that public and independent response that provides Canadians with confidence in our electoral system.”
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Meanwhile, Trudeau said in a statement Wednesday that Johnston “brings integrity and a wealth of experience and skills” to the role.
“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,” he said.
— with files from Global News’ Sean Boynton