Special Rapporteur David Johnson is expected to release its decision Tuesday on whether the federal Liberals should call for a public inquiry foreign interference.
With allegations of Chinese meddling in the last two federal elections dominating the political conversation for months, experts say an investigation would allow for a detailed, transparent conversation about what kind of threats Canada actually faces.
It would also allow the Liberal government to show it is doing more to address the issue, they say.
Johnston’s recommendation on the inquiry will come as part of an initial report on how the government should proceed with allegations of interference. The former governor general is scheduled to hold a press conference at lunchtime on Tuesday when the report is released publicly.
Will there be a public inquiry into foreign interference? Politics weigh in
In what many saw at the time as too little, too late, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped Johnston in March to lead an inquiry into the extent and impact of foreign interference in Canada.
The federal government said it gave Johnston access to classified documents and Canada’s security agencies to carry out that work.
Although opposition parties had then been calling for a formal public inquiry for weeks, Trudeau said Johnston would have until the end of May to decide whether it was warranted. He would have until the end of October to produce a final report.
The pressure hasn’t eased since then.
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“The way the conversation has evolved over the past few months has really exacerbated and sharpened partisan divides in the country,” said University of Ottawa professor Artur Wilczynski.
“This, in my view, has not contributed to an effective defense of Canadian democracy and has not contributed to an effective government response to threats of foreign interference.”
Wilczynski, who spent more than 30 years in the public service working on foreign policy, intelligence, security and defense issues, said an inquiry would help return the conversation to the specifics of the threat of foreign interference itself and how Canada should position itself to combat that threat.
The signs that foreign interference was taking place – and getting worse – were already in plain sight long before the current controversy began.
Officials in Canada knew the 2016 US election was subject to foreign interference attempts.
And for years, the Canadian National Security Intelligence Service has warned of growing concerns in its annual reports.
But a series of reports by the Globe and Mail and Global News beginning last fall, many of which cited unnamed security sources, brought new attention to the issue. The reports claimed that specific influence attempts had taken place in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
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“Despite various attempts by officials to talk about foreign interference, the only thing that prompted a real basic conversation about foreign interference was the illegal leaks,” Wilczynski said.
When a Global News report was published in November that alleged China was financing campaigns through an illegal network of donors, Trudeau and his officials said they had no knowledge of specific candidates supported by Beijing.
But the government began to show signs of changing its attitude toward China.
A week after the allegations emerged, Trudeau’s office said the prime minister expressed concern about “interference” with Chinese President Xi Jinping face-to-face at the G20 summit.
Later that month, Canada released an Indo-Pacific strategy that devoted part of its $2.3 billion budget to combating foreign interference.
And before November ended, then-RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki confirmed an ongoing investigation into broad allegations of foreign interference.
Still, calls for further scrutiny intensified as more reports emerged, including a February story from the Globe and Mail that claimed the Chinese government was trying to defeat conservative politicians in the 2021 election who were considered unfriendly to the regime.
When Trudeau announced in early March that a special rapporteur would be appointed — and that investigations by parliament’s National Security and Intelligence Committee and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency would begin — the writing was on the wall.
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His political opponents already saw any measure other than an independent public inquiry as far too little. A parliamentary committee passed a non-binding motion calling on the government to begin one.
“It’s created enormous political drama for the Liberal government and put it on the defensive, really,” said Wesley Wark, senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.
“The Liberal government has struggled to come up with a convincing portrait of the actions and policies it has taken to respond forcefully to foreign interference. It’s clearly done some things, but it hasn’t been enough.”
Since Trudeau appointed Johnston as special rapporteur in mid-March, the government pledged funding to combat foreign interference in its 2023 budget, launched consultations on a foreign agent registry and ordered security agencies to improve their reporting mechanism up to the policy level.
But even as the Liberals tried to show they were working on the issue, even more reports emerged, adding to the pressure.
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Days after Johnston’s appointment — itself controversial, as conservatives accused him of being too close to Trudeau — MP Han Dong announced he was leaving the Liberal caucus.
Global News had published a story citing unidentified security sources who claimed Dong told a Chinese diplomat in February 2021 that the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor would benefit the Conservatives.
The two Canadian men had been detained in China since December 2018, just over a week after the RCMP arrested Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a US extradition warrant.
Global had previously published allegations that Dong benefited from Chinese foreign interference in his successful bid to become the Liberal candidate for his 2019 riding.
Dong has denied the allegations and is suing Global for its reporting.
“Global News is governed by a rigorous set of journalistic principles and practices. We are keenly aware of the public interest and legal responsibility for this important responsibility reporting,” said Rishma Govani, spokeswoman for Global News and Corus Entertainment, have said before.
Earlier this month, the Globe and Mail reported that Conservative MP Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong had been targeted by the Chinese government via a Toronto-based diplomat.
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Chong said he confirmed the allegation was part of a CSIS intelligence assessment that had reached officials in the Privy Council Office, while Trudeau denied the information about the alleged threat had ever reached his office.
Canada expelled the accused Chinese official. China responded by expelling a Canadian diplomat. And this week the security minister ordered security agencies to ensure that future threats against parliamentarians, their families or their staff are communicated at political level.
For Wilczynski, this latest chapter in the story has brought home the tangible consequences of foreign interference.
It was one thing for people to imagine that an election candidate might have received financial support from people connected to a foreign regime. It was another to consider claims that members of a parliamentarian’s family were being actively threatened.
This “crystallized for Canadians in a very robust way what the magnitude of the threat is,” he said.
It is against that background that Johnston is now expected to recommend the government’s best course of action.
Formal hearings would give election officials, political parties, parliamentarians, provinces, communities and other actors a voice, Wilczynski said — “and talk in a thoughtful way about what the threat is and what their experiences are.”
Trudeau has said he will follow Johnston’s recommendations, including whether he recommends a public inquiry.
That’s a big burden to carry, Wark noted.
“Johnston has been ostracized in the face of this problem. And he’s going to take the heat.”