Trudeau dismisses criticism of David Johnston as political

PM named the former governor general a special rapporteur for foreign interference in March

Opposition parties have decried appointment of former governor general as special rapporteur because of connections to the prime minister's family | Dave Eagles, KTW

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he has confidence in David Johnston, even as the House of Commons is about to vote in favour of a motion to push him out of his job.

Trudeau named the former governor general a special rapporteur for foreign interference in March to look into allegations the Chinese government tried to meddle in the last two federal elections.

Opposition parties decried the appointment because of Johnston's family connections to the prime minister's family and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

Trudeau brushed off those concerns, telling reporters that he views the matter as political parties wanting to score "partisan points."

 "The fact of the matter is David Johnston has served this country in extraordinary capacities for decades," Trudeau said Wednesday on his way into a meeting with his Liberal caucus.

"He's taken this incredibly seriously."

Government House leader Mark Holland has said he has been trying to negotiate with opposition parties to find additional avenues to address concerns about foreign interference that go beyond what has already been offered.

Holland has repeatedly said the hyper-political rhetoric around the discussions in public has been counterproductive, but he would not elaborate on what else the government is offering.

The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois, however, are expected to vote Wednesday afternoon in favour of a motion put forward by the New Democrats that calls on Johnston "to step aside from this role." 

The motion also calls on the government to instead launch a public inquiry into the issue of foreign interference, which the former governor general recommended against in his initial report last week.

Johnston said in his report that due to the sensitive nature of national security and the intelligence he studied, there would be no way to divulge the information Canadians are seeking publicly. He said that would defeat the purpose of a public inquiry.

He said what he plans to do instead is hold a series of public hearings to further probe the issue. He said he would focus on hearing from officials of both past and present governments, as well as members of diaspora communities affected by foreign interference attempts.  

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has attempted to walk a fine line in promoting the motion. He hasbeen saying that while he has no qualms with Johnston, he understands that others do and this creates and that creates an appearance of bias that taints his work.

The motion was brought forward by NDP Jenny Kwan. She recently told reporters the Canadian Security Intelligence Service informed her she has been a target of China since before the 2019 federal vote, over her advocacy around human rights in China.

Trudeau has dismissed allegations of Johnston is in a conflict of interest as politically motivated attacks without any basis in fact. Speaking to reporters last week, Johnston also defended his work, saying this has been the first time his impartiality has been questioned, which he finds "troubling."

He has said his "friendship" with the prime minister is rooted only in the five or so times their families went skiing together decades ago. Trudeau was also a student at McGill University at the time when Johnston was serving as principal and vice-chancellor.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor and Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press