Former Governor-General David Johnston’s recommendation against a public inquiry into foreign interference was the highlight of his preliminary report on Tuesday, but it was far from the only conclusion worth noting.
The Special Rapporteur’s report, and his comments to reporters following its publication, provided new insights into the external threats Canada faces and the steps needed to combat them. Johnston also responded to critics who questioned his impartiality.
Below are some other highlights of Johnston’s work.
Johnston on his ties to Trudeau
Conservative Leader Pierre Poulevre and other opposition MPs argued after Johnston’s nomination in March that the former governor general could not be truly impartial because of his so-called friendship with the prime minister and ties to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
It should be noted that Johnston was appointed governor-general by former conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.
Polievre says he “doesn’t trust” Johnston to hold public hearings on foreign interference
Johnston told reporters Tuesday that his family and Trudeau’s family enjoyed “a few ski trips” when Trudeau was a child, noting that the families had cottages near each other in Quebec. He would later see Trudeau “from time to time” when the future prime minister was a student at McGill University while Johnston served as the school’s principal.
But Johnston said he had no relationship with Trudeau beyond that.
“During that period, until he became a Liberal MP and I was governor general, I had no meeting with Justin Trudeau, no letters that I can recall, no phone calls,” she said, adding next time: met at Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s funeral.
Johnston said his work with the Trudeau Foundation primarily involved funding scholarships while running several universities until he became a fellow in 2018. He said he attended several of the annual general meetings and donated between $300 and $400 a year, which he estimated. was “less than 1 percent” of his and his wife’s annual charitable giving.
He noted that his impartiality or integrity had not been questioned before and said the allegations against him were “disturbing”.
“This series of baseless allegations undermines trust in our public institutions,” he said, adding that it could deter Canadians from entering public service.
Johnston said he received an independent legal opinion on the matter from retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Frank Iacobucci.
“I have no doubt that I had a conflict of interest, and I have no doubt at all, speaking from myself, about my impartiality,” he said.
Alleged external interference. The potential political implications of Johnston’s decision not to investigate
Differences between Chinese and Russian intervention
Johnston’s report highlights the evolution of foreign interference threats from 2016, when Russia’s attempted meddling in the US presidential election alerted the world to a greater threat of interference, to today, where China is a growing focus of concern.
Both countries are pursuing intervention in different ways, he told reporters on Tuesday.
“Russia is much more focused on destroying our democratic institutions,” he said.
“Chinese interference is much longer term, much more widespread and much more sophisticated and uses disinformation and other things to protect what China considers its special defense areas.”
Johnston proposes public hearings on allegations of foreign interference
The report notes that until recently, Canada’s public and domestic efforts to combat foreign interference have largely focused on cyber threats to elections, where Russia typically operates.
In contrast, Canada has been slower to respond to Chinese efforts that are more widespread and often directly target diaspora communities, along with online disinformation and other methods.
“We didn’t respond as quickly and as effectively as we should have,” he said in Ottawa, adding that public hearings, which he proposed instead of an inquiry, would help address that “gap.”
Concerns of Diaspora Communities
A key part of Johnston’s report notes that the very democratic institutions that Canada seeks to protect from foreign interference are what make the country vulnerable.
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In particular, he said, hostile actors could exploit the legitimate political activities of diaspora communities who, according to Johnston, are “doing nothing wrong” by organizing mass campaigns for or against certain candidates or political parties.
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That includes organizing buses to transport voters to polling stations or campaign events, he added, noting that those with campaign experience he spoke to for the report “wondered whether (the buses) attract more attention when they contain racialized Canadians.” “.
“It is important that efforts to combat foreign interference do not discriminate against the diaspora population,” he wrote.
“Diaspora communities are mostly victims of foreign interventions. We must take all necessary steps to ensure that they too do not face discrimination because of foreign intervention actions by foreign countries that target them.”
At the same time, he noted, distinguishing legitimate grassroots activity from so-called “astroturfing” can be a challenge.
Johnston added that foreign actors can also operate in a legal “gray zone” and can further use Canada’s open democracy and media to sow doubt in the electoral process and society in general.
“The fact that anyone can run for office means that we must take all appropriate steps to protect individual candidates from foreign inducements, threats, or seemingly benign foreign interference,” he wrote.
Johnston will “address” the possible declassification of the documents before the final report
He said knowledge of the vulnerabilities that Canadian democracy presents to foreign interference is critical to protecting those institutions and countering threats. That should include strengthening existing laws, he said, as well as improved intelligence sharing not only within the federal government but also between other levels of government.
“That Canada welcomes foreign interference is a sign of strength, not weakness,” he wrote. “Foreign adversaries see our free, open and democratic society and seek to undermine it.”
Is there no further politicization?
Johnston said it was important for politicians to avoid further reports of foreign interference to score political points, adding that all parties must work together to confront the “ever-evolving threat”.
“There are too many attitudes and ignoring facts in favor of slogans from all sides,” he wrote. “And many of those slogans turned out to be wrong.”
Johnston’s work is expected to continue until the end of October, when he must submit a final report to the government.
— With files from The Canadian Press