NDP praises David Johnston as Tories, Bloc bemoan interference watchdog appointment

OTTAWA — Opposition parties continue to call for a public inquiry into foreign interference, but the NDP is welcoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's choice of a special rapporteur.

On Wednesday, Trudeau announced that former governor general David Johnston will look into allegations of foreign meddling in Canada's last two federal elections and recommend what the Liberal government should do about it.

"Get real," Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre wrote in a Thursday statement.

"Trudeau must end his cover up," he charged, noting that Trudeau referred to Johnston as a "family friend" in 2017 and that the former viceregal had been a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said those ties show that Johnston is "close" to Trudeau, and he said Johnstonhas been "chummy" with China.

"I don't want to make out of that any personal character accusations against Mr. Johnston," he added. "I'm not ready to go there."

Blanchet called the role a "superfluous" waste of time since opposition parties will still demand a public inquiry. He said he worried the minority government might even fall before Johnston wraps up his work.

The Bloc leader added that the allegations of Chinese interference and the lack of transparency around the matter have created terrible optics for Canada ahead of a visit next week by U.S. President Joe Biden.

Yet NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says Johnston is a "non-partisan" official known for his integrity, and the New Democrats welcome his work while still pushing for an inquiry to sort out the timeline of when Trudeau knew various facts and how he responded.

"The other opposition parties, and frankly the Liberals as well, have been more focused on scoring political points than really focusing on solutions around protecting our democracy," Singh argued during a press conference in Toronto.

"That's why we've been calling for an independent process, while we still maintain we need a public inquiry to restore public confidence."

The Canadian Press has requested an interview with Johnston.

For its part, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa said it undertakes regular engagements "in various circles of Canada" but insisted Beijing does not interfere in internal affairs.

"It is the responsibility of consular institutions to have extensive contacts and carry out friendly exchanges with local governments and all circles of society," the embassy wrote on Twitter.

"Infiltration and interference is never in the genes and tradition of China's foreign policy."

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a China expert at the University of Ottawa who is often critical of Beijing, praised the appointment of Johnston. The two are not related.

"We know he is passionate about (Canada), having served our country impeccably for decades," she wrote on Twitter.

"Imagine then his deep concern with our electoral system upended by an autocracy. He will ensure that actions are taken to fix it."

Trudeau has said the appointment was made after consultations with all parties in the House of Commons, though the NDP said Johnston's name was not raised with them during the consultations.

The appointment came after Global News and the Globe and Mail newspaper reported allegations of Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Johnston's recommendations could include a public inquiry or another independent review process. The Liberals have pledged to make his recommendations public and abide by the guidance.

Since 2018, Johnston has been a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. The charity has previously said that Trudeau ended his formal involvement with it in 2014.

Johnston was named governor general on the advice of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010, who extended his initial five-year term in early 2015. He continued in the role after Trudeau was elected that fall, serving 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.

A mandate for Johnston's new role is being finalized and will be made public, Trudeau's office said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2023.

— With files from David Fraser.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press