What else we learned from David Johnston’s interference report – National
Former governor general David Johnston’s recommendation against a public inquiry into foreign interference was the highlight of his initial report Tuesday — but it was far from the only conclusion worth noting.
The special rapporteur’s report and his comments to reporters after its release contained new insight into the foreign threats Canada faces and what must be done to combat them. Johnston also responded to critics who have questioned his impartiality.
Below are some of the other highlights from Johnston’s work.
Johnston on his ties with Trudeau
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and other opposition MPs have argued since Johnston’s naming in March the former governor general could not be truly impartial because of a so-called friendship with the prime minister and connections to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
Johnston, to note, had been appointed as governor general by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.
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Johnston told reporters on Tuesday that his family and Trudeau’s enjoyed “only on a few ski expeditions” when Trudeau was a child, and noted 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.
“In that period of time until he became a Liberal member of Parliament and I was governor general, I had no meetings with Justin Trudeau, I had no letters that I can recall, no telephone calls,” he said, adding the next time they encountered each other was at Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s funeral.
Johnston said his work with the Trudeau Foundation mostly involved pursuing scholarship funding while managing several universities, until he became a member in 2018. He said he only attended a handful of annual general meetings and donated between $300 and $400 per year — an amount he said was “less than 1 per cent” of the charitable donations he and his wife make annually.
He noted his impartiality or integrity has not been called into question before and said the charges leveled against him were “troubling.”
“This kind of baseless set of accusations diminishes trust in our public institutions,” he said, adding it may deter Canadians from entering public service.
Johnston said he got an independent legal opinion from retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci on the matter.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that I had any conflict of interest and no doubt at all, speaking for myself, about my impartiality,” he said.
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Differences in Chinese and Russian interference
Johnston’s report highlighted the evolution of foreign interference threats from 2016 — when Russian meddling attempts in the U.S. presidential election alerted the world to the larger interference threat — to the present day, where China is a growing focus of concern.
Both countries pursue interference differently, he told reporters Tuesday.
“Russia is much more focused on destroying our democratic institutions,” he said.
“Chinese interference is much more long term, much more pervasive and much more sophisticated and using disinformation and other things to protect what China regards as its special areas of protection.”
Johnston recommends public hearings on foreign interference allegations
The report noted that until recently, Canada’s public and internal efforts to combat foreign interference have mostly 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 have not responded quickly and as effectively as we should,” he said in Ottawa, adding the public hearings he recommended in lieu of an inquiry would help address that “gap.”
Concerns for diaspora communities
A key section of Johnston’s report noted the very democratic institutions Canada is seeking to protect from foreign interference are precisely what makes the country vulnerable.
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Specifically, he said hostile actors can exploit the legitimate political activities of diaspora communities, who Johnston said are doing “nothing wrong” by organizing grassroots campaigns in favour or in opposition of particular candidates or political parties.
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That includes organizing buses to transport voters to polling places or campaign events, he added, noting those he spoke to with campaign experience for the report “wondered whether (buses) get more attention when they contain racialized Canadians.”
“It is crucial that efforts to combat foreign interference do not cause discrimination against diaspora populations,” he wrote.
“Diaspora communities are largely victims of foreign interference activities. We must take all steps necessary to ensure that they do not also face discrimination by virtue of foreign interference activities of foreign states that target them.”
At the same time, he noted that distinguishing legitimate grassroots activities from so-called “astroturfing” can be a challenge.
Johnston added foreign actors can also operate in a legal “grey zone,” and can further exploit Canada’s open democracy and media to sow doubt in the electoral process and society at large.
“The very fact that anyone may run for office means that we must take all appropriate steps to protect individual candidates from inducements, threats or seemingly benign foreign interference conduct by foreign states,” he wrote.
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He said knowledge of the vulnerabilities Canada’s democracy presents to foreign interference is crucial to protecting those institutions and combating threats. That must include strengthening current laws, he said, along with improved intelligence sharing not just within the federal government, but between other levels of government as well.
“The fact that Canada attracts foreign interference is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness,” he wrote. “Foreign adversaries see our free, open and democratic society, and seek to undermine it.”
No further politicization?
Johnston said it is important for politicians to avoid using further reports of foreign interference to score political points, adding all parties must work together to face the “ever-evolving danger.”
“There has been too much posturing, and ignoring facts in favour of slogans, from all parties,” he wrote. “And many of those slogans turned out to be wrong.”
Johnston’s work is expected to continue through the end of October, when he is due to present a final report to the government.
— with files from The Canadian Press
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