Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre is maintaining his position against meeting with David Johnston, citing the special rapporteur’s lack of impartiality in probing foreign interference related to Canada’s federal elections.
Trudeau appointed the former governor general to act as special rapporteur on March 15, following multiple media reports that suggested interference by the Chinese regime in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 campaigns. But the appointment has been heavily criticized due to Johnston’s close relationship with the Trudeau family and his previous position in the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
“No. Because [Johnston] is not impartial,” Poilievre said during a media roundtable event in Toronto on May 24 when asked if he would meet with Johnston as the interference probe continues.
“He is Justin Trudeau’s ski buddy, cottage neighbour, 40-year-long family friend, and member of the Beijing-financed Trudeau Foundation.”
Citing similar reasons, Poilievre also refused to meet with Johnston ahead of the release of his first report, saying that his mandate to investigate election interference was just a “fake job.”
Meanwhile, Erin O’Toole, who was the Conservative leader when the party suffered defeat in the 2021 election, said Johnston did not offer to meet with him to address the issue of foreign interference until a week before the report’s due date. O’Toole also expressed disappointment that he learned midway through their meeting that the report was already completed and under French translation for its release on May 23.
Poilievre pointed to media reports that Zhang Bin and Niu Gensheng, two wealthy Chinese businessmen with links to Beijing, made a $1 million donation to the Trudeau Foundation and the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Law—Pierre Trudeau’s alma mater and former workplace—shortly after Justin Trudeau attended a cash-for-access Liberal Party fundraiser in 2016.
The donation issue recently came to light after the Globe and Mail reported in February that Canada’s intelligence service had intercepted a conversation in 2014 between Zhang and a Chinese consulate official in Canada, reportedly discussing how the Liberals would defeat the Conservatives in the upcoming election. The Chinese diplomat asked Zhang to make the $1 million donation, which would be reimbursed by Beijing, the report said.
“David Johnston was on the Trudeau Foundation. So how can he possibly investigate the organization in which he was a part?” Poilievre said on May 24.
“We all see this is a game here,” he added. “It involves money—a foreign dictatorship buying the loyalty of our prime minister.”
Alexandre Trudeau, the brother of the prime minister and member of the Trudeau Foundation, denied the organization’s involvement in foreign interference while testifying before the House of Commons ethics committee on May 3.
Johnston said in his report that he initially supported holding a public inquiry on foreign interference, but later decided that the classified material informing the matter cannot be revealed to the public—a decision that has prompted criticism from members of the opposition as well as advocates.
On May 23, a group of six MPs from the Conservative, NDP, and Bloc Québécois parties issued a letter demanding that Johnston appear before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee to explain his rationale.
On that same day, the NGO Democracy Watch said it was filing a complaint to the federal ethics commissioner’s office, arguing that Johnston has violated the Conflict of Interest Act in serving as special rapporteur while being a friend to the Trudeau family. Democracy Watch further revealed on May 24 that Johnston’s adviser, Sheila Block, who assisted him in reviewing secret documents related to the matter of foreign interference, was a donor to the Liberal Party. Elections Canada records Block making a cumulative donation of over $7,500 between 2006 and 2022.
Poilievre said his next step would be to call on the NDP, which has a coalition agreement to support the Liberal minority, to join in continued demands for a public inquiry on foreign interference.
“The NDP, they’re the coalition partner, they’re the ones with all the power, they have to force a public inquiry. That or else they are just protecting Justin Trudeau,” he said.
Nothing short of an independent public inquiry on foreign interference is good enough.
I’m deeply disappointed in the rapporteur’s report.
We’ll be taking these concerns directly to the PM and use all our tools in Parliament to get answers for Canadians.
— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) May 23, 2023
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh issued a statement on May 23 expressing disappointment in Johnston’s decision against holding a public inquiry.
“Nothing short of an independent public inquiry on foreign interference is good enough,” Singh wrote. “We’ll be taking these concerns directly to the PM and use all our tools in Parliament to get answers for Canadians.”
Roger Li from NTD Television, Noé Chartier, Matthew Horwood, Omid Ghoreishi, and Peter Wilson contributed to this report.