House of Commons asks Johnston to step down as special rapporteur

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already dismissed this ask by a majority of MPs as another political attack

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OTTAWA  — David Johnston has refused the House of Commons’ request to step down from his role as special rapporteur on foreign interference.

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“When I accepted the mandate to act as Independent Special Rapporteur, I did so with full knowledge of the fact that the work ahead would be neither straightforward nor uncontroversial,” Johnston said in a news release following the vote in the Commons Wednesday. “These are delicate and important matter and must be addressed with the seriousness that is warranted.”

As expected, the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois supported the NDP motion calling on the government to replace Johnston and to “urgently establish” a public inquiry to look into multiple reports that Beijing meddled in the past two federal elections.

The Liberals, just as unsurprisingly, voted against the motion, which is non-binding on the government. It was adopted 174-150.

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Johnston said he “deeply” respects the right of the House of Commons “to express its opinion” but said his mandate comes from the government.

“I have a duty to pursue that work until my mandate is completed,” he said.

Even before the vote, Minister of Innovation François-Philippe Champagne said that motions like these are adopted “every day” and this one is no different.

“All that is fair and good, it’s the expression of the will of Parliament,” he said. “Our role is to govern.”

The vote comes a little more than a week after Johnston ruled out a public inquiry in his interim report, opting instead to conduct public hearings that he would chair himself.

Johnston said in his report that due to the sensitive nature of national security and the intelligence he studied, there would be no way to divulge the information Canadians are seeking publicly. He said that would defeat the purpose of a public inquiry.

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The public hearings would focus on testimony from officials of both past and present governments, as well as members of diaspora communities affected by foreign interference attempts.

Johnston is expected to produce a final report in the fall recommending ways to restore public confidence in the electoral system.

Opposition parties have been decrying the appointment of Johnston, a former governor general, because of his family connection to the prime minister’s family and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. They are also taking issue with Johnston’s legal aide having donated to the Liberal Party of Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau brushed off those concerns on his way to a Liberal caucus meeting on Wednesday morning, accusing political adversaries of wanting to score “political points.”

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“The fact of the matter is that David Johnston served this country in an extraordinary capacity for decades,” he said. “He is a man that, as the report shows, is taking this extremely seriously.”

Trudeau also accused the Conservative and Bloc leaders of contributing to “an extremely toxic situation” in attacking Johnston’s reputation and once again asked them to get security clearance to be able to see the raw intelligence that led to the conclusions in the special rapporteur’s report. Both have refused because they will be unable to speak about the information publicly.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has accepted the offer on the condition that he be able to speak as freely as possible about the contents afterwards.

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Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet was visibly frustrated by the prime minister’s comments on Wednesday, ahead of the vote on the motion.

“What I cannot accept is that the biggest threat to democracy right now is becoming Justin Trudeau rather than China,” he said in French.

“His attitude, his pretentiousness, his arrogance, his lack of consideration for voters of the majority of the House of Commons has reached a level that even his father has never attained.”

But National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier pushed back, saying that acting on perceptions of conflicts of interest will only do more damage to democracy.

Justice Minister David Lametti said the way Johnston has been treated by opposition parties is “disgusting”.

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“We’re demolishing the good reputations of people who have given a lot to this country,” he said, pointing to unnamed witnesses who are now refusing to appear in front of parliamentary committees out of fear that their names will be tarnished.

Speaking to reporters last week, Johnston also defended his work, saying this has been the first time his impartiality has been questioned, which he finds “troubling.”

He has said his “friendship” with the prime minister is rooted only in the five or so times their families went skiing together decades ago.

Trudeau was also a student at McGill University at the time when Johnston was serving as principal and vice-chancellor.

With additional reporting by The Canadian Press


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