Former Governor General David Johnston’s recommendation against a public investigation into foreign interference was the highlight of his first report on 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 to Trudeau

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and other opposition MPs have argued since Johnston’s naming in March that the former governor general could not be truly impartial because of a so-called friendship with the prime minister and links to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

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Johnston, of note, had been appointed Governor General by former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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Poilievre says he doesn’t ‘trust’ Johnston to hold public hearings on foreign interference

Johnston told reporters Tuesday that his family and the Trudeaus enjoyed “just a few ski expeditions” when Trudeau was a child, noting that the families had cabins near each other in Quebec. He would later meet 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.

“During that time until he became a Liberal MP and I was governor general, I had no meetings with Justin Trudeau, I had no letters that I can recall, no phone calls,” he said, adding the next time they bumped into each other was at Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s funeral.

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Johnston said his work with the Trudeau Foundation mostly involved seeking scholarships while leading several universities, until he became a member in 2018. He said he attended only a handful of annual meetings and donated between $300 and $400 a year — an amount he said was “less than 1 percent” of the charitable donations he and his wife make annually.

Noting that his impartiality or integrity have not been questioned in the past, he said the allegations against him were “disturbing”.

“These kinds of baseless allegations erode confidence in our public institutions,” he said, adding that it could discourage Canadians from entering public service.

Johnston said he received 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 whatsoever, speaking for myself, of my impartiality,” he said.

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Alleged foreign interference: Potential political fallout from Johnston’s decision not to hold hearings

Differences in Chinese and Russian interference

Johnston’s report highlighted the evolution of the threat of foreign interference from 2016 – when Russian meddling in the US presidential election alerted the world to the greater threat of meddling – to today, with China a growing focus of concern.

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Both countries are pursuing disruption in different ways, he told reporters on 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, using disinformation and other things to protect what China considers its special protection areas.”

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Johnston recommends public hearings on allegations of foreign interference

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 that the public hearings he recommended in lieu of an inquiry would help close that “gap.”

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Concern for diaspora communities

A key part of Johnston’s report noted that the very democratic institutions that Canada seeks to protect from foreign interference are precisely what make the country vulnerable.

Specifically, he said hostile actors can exploit the legitimate political activities of diaspora communities, which Johnston said are doing “no wrong” by organizing grassroots campaigns in favor of or in opposition to particular candidates or political parties.

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No public inquiry, but party leaders offered ‘necessary’ security clearances: Trudeau

That includes organizing buses to transport voters to polling stations or campaign events, he added, noting those he spoke to with campaign experience for the report “wondered if (buses) get more attention when they contain racialized Canadians.”

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“It is critical that efforts to combat foreign interference do not discriminate against diaspora populations,” he wrote.

“Diaspora communities are largely victims of foreign interference. We must take all necessary steps to ensure that they are not also discriminated against because of foreign interference activities by 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 that foreign actors can also operate in a legal “gray 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 can run for office means that we must take all appropriate measures to protect individual candidates from incitement, intimidation, or seemingly benign foreign interference by foreign states,” he wrote.

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Johnston will ‘look into’ possible retrieval of documents ahead of final report: Trudeau

He said knowledge of the vulnerabilities Canada’s democracy poses to foreign interference is critical to protecting those institutions and combating threats. That must include strengthening current laws, he said, along with improved intelligence sharing not only within the federal government, but also between other levels of government.

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“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 was important for politicians to avoid using further reports of foreign interference to score political points, adding that all parties must work together to address the “ever-growing danger.”

“There has been too much posturing and ignoring facts in favor of slogans, from all parties,” he wrote. “And many of those slogans turned out to be wrong.”

Johnston’s work is expected to continue until the end of October, when he will present a final report to the government.

— with files from The Canadian Press