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New allegations and a full accounting of ski vacations. Here’s what we learned from David Johnston at committee

News

David Johnston appeared before members of Parliament on Tuesday to defend his conclusion that Canada doesn’t need a public inquiry into foreign interference in the country’s elections, but found himself handling accusations of multiple conflicts of interest in his role as “special rapporteur.”

Opposition MPs went deep into his history with the Trudeau family and also targeted a new potential conflict after the Globe and Mail reported that his lead counsel for the election interference report had donated thousands of dollars to the Liberal Party over the last 20 years.

Here’s what you need to know about the new revelations and Johnston’s appearance at the standing committee on procedure and House affairs on Tuesday.

A new conflict of interest allegation

MPs from the three major opposition parties zeroed in on Sheila Block, a Toronto lawyer who served as lead counsel for Johnston’s investigation into foreign interference, for her recent donations to the Liberal party.

“The fact that the lead counsel has repeatedly donated to the Liberal Party and attended a fundraiser with the prime minister as late as 2021, this appearance of bias, to a reasonable person, would undermine the work that you’re hoping to do. That work cannot be achieved because of the appearance of bias,” said NDP Jagmeet Singh.

Conservative MP Michael Barrett pressed Johnston on the allegation of Block’s potential conflict of interest but Johnston rejected the claim.

“I do not see a conflict. Sheila Block is a preeminent counsellor… She is renowned for the quality of her work and it’s certainly important work that is done well,” said Johnston.

NDP MP Peter Julian asked Johnston whether he was aware of Block’s history of donating to the Liberal Party.

“I wasn’t aware of her donation history and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to inquire into that because her reputation and integrity is impeccable and continues to be so in my view,” said Johnston.

Canadians may not get a definitive answer any time soon: the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner is currently vacant.

The former commissioner, Mario Dion, stepped down in February, and Martine Richard, the interim commissioner, stepped down after controversy erupted because she was the sister-in-law of a cabinet minister.

Ski vacations and adjacent cottages

The committee kicked off with Conservative MPs cataloguing all the press clippings where Johnston spoke about his long friendship with the Trudeau family, going back to when Justin Trudeau was six years old.

Conservative MP Larry Brock contrasted Johnston’s description of his relationship with the Trudeau family in 2016 and, more recently, where he seemed to minimize his ties with the prime minister.

“What we have before this committee are two completely different descriptions of your relationship with Justin Trudeau,” said Brock.

“Those two different descriptions cannot be accurate at the same time. So my question is simple and direct. Mr. Johnston, were you telling Canadians the truth on May 23 or back in 2016,” said Brock.

Johnston responded that he has been telling the truth about his relationship with Trudeau and that the contacts reported in the media have been few and far between, over several decades.

Johnston doubles down on rejecting a public inquiry

Throughout the committee hearing, Johnston continued to argue against a public inquiry into foreign interference, on the grounds that too much classified intelligence information was involved.

MPs from all three major opposition parties argued strenuously in favour of the inquiry.

“The problem is Parliament has not been able to do its work because our hands have been tied by the government. We haven’t been able to get the answers,” said Conservative MP Michael Chong, whose family was the target of an intimidation campaign by the Chinese government that sparked the committee investigation and Johnston’s investigation.

“If Parliament hasn’t been able to get the answers over the last four years, and you’re not going to seek the answers in your upcoming hearings, and we’re not getting a public inquiry, all the powers of subpoena all the powers to call witnesses and to gather evidence then how on earth are we to get the answers we need to play our constitutional role and hold this government accountable?” said Chong.

Bloc Québécois Alain Therrien said there were precedents of public inquiries involving top secret information, such as the Maher Arar inquiry and the Air India inquiry. Therrien said the inquiry could allow for in camera sessions that would keep sensitive information secret.

Johnston said that an inquiry would take a long time, be very expensive, and be the wrong process for getting to the bottom of foreign interference.

“I’m blown away that we’re talking about price tag,” said Therrien. “Yes, it can take time, but we can live for a long time in the darkness.”

A long day for Liberal MPs

Although Johnston had to field tough questions for three hours from increasingly irritated MPs, perhaps the hardest job fell to backbench Liberal MPs on the committee who alternated between tossing easy questions to the special rapporteur and running out the clock.

Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull took some delight in quoting Conservatives who had praised Johnston in the past, most notably former prime minister Stephen Harper who called Johnston the “best of Canada,” and comparing that to recent comments from Conservatives questioning Johnston’s ability to conduct an impartial investigation.

Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell accused the opposition MPs of preening for social media.

“They got their clips. That’s what this is really about,” said Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell, who pointed out that one Conservative MP had already posted a clip of the meeting on Twitter.

The consequences of foreign interference

Therrien also said that he has been hearing from voters on the doorstep that they are worried about the integrity of Canadian elections.

“Unfortunately, when we see these foreign interference threats, people’s trust in democracy and in our institutions falls and it’s this lowering of trust that can lead people to say, ‘Okay the dice has already been cast, why should I vote? It seems like foreigners are deciding for us,'” said Therrien, who reiterated that it would take a public inquiry to soothe the fears of Canadians.

Johnston agreed with Therrien on the nature of the threat of foreign interference but disagreed with his conclusion that the matter requires a public inquiry to investigate.

“What we’re seeing around the world is a diminishing trust in democracies all over,” said Johnston.

“With respect to the question of a public inquiry, we thought long and hard about this. The dilemma is that we’re dealing with classified information and it is not possible to discuss classified information in public.”

‘Elite capture’ may be a bigger problem than the Chinese government’s intimidation tactics, experts warn

News

A plot by the Chinese government to intimidate Conservative MP Michael Chong and his family in Hong Kong continues to dominate Parliament Hill, but experts are warning that the Chinese Communist Party’s “elite capture” efforts may be a bigger problem.

While the Chinese government works globally to woo high-ranking people, Canada’s political and economic elites may have been the most enthusiastic and possibly the most willing recipients according to high-profile experts, including a former ambassador to China. 

“Elite capture, I think it’s a significant problem in this country,” says Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University and a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute. “It’s a problem in terms of the Laurentian elite, the political, economic, and social consensus between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Look at the key cabinet ministers, they all come from that triangle.”

On March 15, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed former governor general David Johnston to be a “special rapporteur” investigating foreign interference into Canadian elections.

When Johnston announced on May 23 that there would be no public inquiry into foreign interference, he was widely criticized and on May 31, opposition MPs passed a motion calling on Johnston to step down as rapporteur, which he refused to do. 

While critics have focused on Johnston’s close relationship with Trudeau, others see a conflict of interest in Johnston’s long history of visiting and promoting China.

While employed by McGill University in the 1980s, Johnston travelled extensively to China and has referred to Nanjing University as his “second home.” Three of Johnston’s children have attended Chinese universities, and Johnston himself has been a guest speaker at meetings of the Canada China Business Council. 

The CCBC is an advocacy group that pushes for deeper economic relations between Canada and China. 

“The CCP’s basic strategy of overseas influence and interference is to capture elites in politics, business, media, think tanks, universities, and cultural institutions,” says Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia. “It deploys a range of techniques including flattery, financial inducement, exploitation of anti-racist and anti-American sentiment, bribery, and honey traps.”

Hamilton says the CCP’s strategy has proven highly successful in Australia and Canada, but the former pushed back far harder after Australia’s government and general public became more well-informed about China’s activities there.

“Key figures in the Liberal Party have long historical ties to the CCP, not least through business connections…” says Hamilton.

Any disruptions to trade between the two countries would also be damaging to some key Canadian industries. A recent canola dispute cost the industry approximately $2 billion because China accounts for 40 percent of Canadian canola exports.

“It’s not like the minister is gonna tell the (Chinese) ambassador that they should stop the meddling,” says Leuprecht. “The ambassador is going to tell the minister that you might want to be a little bit careful what you do here because, otherwise, it might be that some Canadians are gonna lose (their shirts) to China.”

David Mulroney, who served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, says many Canadian elites do not get to see China beyond the shiny new airports, modern trains, and towering cityscapes that have been built by its government in recent decades.

“They see the China of the very powerful rhetoric of the Communist Party,” says Mulroney. “I’ve often said that Chinese leaders are what I call CEO whisperers, they’re very, very skillful when meeting foreigners, particularly senior foreigners.”

Mulroney says many people only see the China of their imagination. 

“China inspires a kind of excessive affection in people and an excessive sense of wonder and a desire not to apply the usual sort of critical thinking skills, and people are seduced by it,” says Mulroney. 

Jean Chrétien and Paul Keating respectively served as the prime ministers of Canada and Australia in the 1990s, and both favoured deepening ties with China during their times in office. Both have worked for, or with, Chinese companies after leaving politics. In Keating’s case, he served on an advisory council of the state-run China Development Bank for 13 years.

To this day, both Keating and Chrétien remain critical of worsening relations between China and the West. Hamilton says Keating and Chrétien were part of a generation that saw the opening of China as a world-historical event that they played a role in.

“When they went to China, they were flattered, cultivated, and co-opted by the CCP using its sophisticated psychological techniques,” says Hamilton. “When they left office, they found riches in Chinese business opportunities that magically appeared before them. They became ‘old friends of China’ in CCP lexicon, which means apologists.”

It has been reported that Canada’s allies in the Pacific, like the United States and Australia, may not trust the Canadian government enough to include them in new security agreements like AUKUS, which is partially aimed at countering China’s geopolitical power in the South Pacific.

While president of the University of Waterloo in 2006, David Johnston oversaw the opening of a Confucius Institute on the campus. With the nominal purpose of Chinese cultural and language education, Confucius Institutes have been accused of performing espionage on behalf of the Chinese government. The institutes have also been accused of promoting the suppression of voices supporting Taiwan and Tibetan independence.