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David Johnston quits as special rapporteur on foreign interference

‘Opposition parties have been calling for the government to call a public inquiry into foreign interference’
David Johnston, Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, appears as a witness at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Johnston says he is stepping down from his role, citing the highly partisan atmosphere around his work. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

David Johnston says he is stepping down from his role as special rapporteur investigating foreign interference before the end of June, citing the highly partisan atmosphere around his work.

The former governor general said in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday that his objective in leading the government’s probe into alleged meddling by China was to help build trust in democratic institutions.

“I have concluded that, given the highly partisan atmosphere around my appointment and work, my leadership has had the opposite effect,” he said.

Johnston’s appointment has been contentious, with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre repeatedly accusing him of being too close to Trudeau’s family to provide an unbiased review of government actions.

All opposition parties have been calling for the government to call a public inquiry into foreign interference.

Beginning last fall, the Globe and Mail and Global News published a series of reports that cited allegations there was a co-ordinated effort by Beijing to interfere in the last two federal elections.

In March, facing increasing pressure inside and outside the House of Commons, Trudeau named Johnston as special rapporteur and tasked him with setting a path forward for the government in tackling the issue. He was asked to report back by May 23 on whether that should include a public inquiry.

“A deep and comprehensive review of foreign interference, its effects and how to prevent it should be an urgent priority for your government and our Parliament,” Johnston wrote Friday.

He reiterated the conclusion he came to in his report last month, which said that a public inquiry would not be useful given the constraints of national security laws and the amount of classified information that will be dealt with.

He suggested public hearings should be held to educate Canadians about how foreign interference happens and how to manage it.

Johnston said he will release a brief final report no later than the end of June, and that will conclude his work.

As he stepped aside, Johnston encouraged Trudeau to appoint a “respected person with national security experience” to finish the work he started, and suggested he consult with opposition parties on who that should be.

Opposition politicians said the resignation is another signal that a public inquiry should begin.

“David Johnston has done the right thing,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh tweeted Friday. “Now the prime minister must call a public inquiry, so that we can restore trust in our democracy.”

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said in French that he salutes Johnston’s dignified decision, and that Trudeau has no choice now but to call a public inquiry.

Conservative MP Erin O’Toole called Johnston an “exceptional Canadian” in a tweet of his own, thanking him for his service to the country.

“It is so disappointing that the prime minister used his stellar reputation as a political shield. It is time to finally call a national inquiry to look at how best to safeguard our democracy from interference,” he wrote.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

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