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Uzelman: Despite David Johnston’s report, a public inquiry is essential

A column by Bruce Uzelman

~BW Uzelman

Justin Trudeau repeatedly assured media that foreign interference in Canadian elections did not impact election results – no matter what the question asked was. It took weeks for the PM to evolve from that to a stated concern for our democracy. The truth is he really did not much care about any of it.

Trudeau resisted calls for a public inquiry. When the controversy did not end, he created the position of “special rapporteur”, never mind that no one knew what that meant. Evidently, it is someone who is less likely to flag political responsibility for widespread security and governance failure. No disrespect to former Governor General David Johnston, the rapporteur. He has already identified significant shortfalls in the sharing of intelligence. But the GG, even if retired, is to be above the partisan fray. The PM did not respect that convention. Mr. Johnston, perhaps, did not grasp the depth of partisanship present.

NSICOP, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliament, has warned the government of widespread foreign interference. The 2019 report stated, “Canada has been slow to react to the threat of foreign interference. The government must do better.” The report said elected and public officials were being targeted. The 2022 report urged the government, “to respond to the recommendations of the committee’s seven previous reviews of critical issues in the security and intelligence community, including … the absence of a whole-of-government strategy to address foreign interference in Canada.”

Trudeau has avoided accepting responsibility for the actions and missteps of his government. There was a time when “ministerial accountability” meant just that, the minister was accountable to Parliament for the performance of his or her department. No more! There was a time when ministers, even the PM, would resign or be fired for mishandling crucial issues. That is now extremely rare.

Foreign interference demands government accountability. A crucial responsibility of government is to provide security against foreign threats. The Trudeau Government has negligently paid it little attention, and has offered minimal transparency. Questions remain: How did pressure from China on the Chinese Canadians impact them, and what needs to be done to protect them? How did the government respond to China’s interference, if at all? What did the PM and the Minister of Public Safety know, and when?

Mr. Johnston believes the government has not done wrong. He has as yet assigned no culpability. His report has instead suggested there were systemic problems. He stated, “The materials [from CSIS] are received, but no one keeps track of who specifically received them or read them.” If the government does not ensure the proper officials and ministers receive and read critical security and intelligence reports, that is a failure of the government – the officials, the ministers and ultimately the PM.

Further, Mr. Johnston’s assertion that a public inquiry is not necessary or helpful is mistaken. He contends there is a conflict between a public inquiry and the need to review classified information privately. As a Globe and Mail Editorial responds, “that ignores history, not to mention common sense.” Many public inquiries have examined classified information in-camera (privately), while non-classified testimony took place in public sessions. Indeed, Mr. Johnson examined classified information privately, and now he and the PM have decided that he will deal with the other issues in public hearings.

Mr. Johnston says he has not found evidence of the government “knowingly ignoring intelligence”. This will not be accepted by the Canadians without a public inquiry. A new poll from Angus Reid revealed that 52% believe a public inquiry is necessary, while 32% believe it is unnecessary and 16% do not know. The poll also found that Canadians disagree with the Johnston appointment by a margin of two to one.

Nevertheless, Pierre Poilievre has been careless and extreme in his allegations against Mr. Johnston. The former Governor General has a favourable reputation; Poilievre has done his best to soil it. He said that Johnston, “is Justin Trudeau’s ski buddy, his cottage neighbour, his family friend and a member of the Trudeau Foundation, which got $140,000 from Beijing.” He added, “He has a fake job and he’s unable to do it impartially.” Really? Poilievre should focus on foreign interference and the government’s failure to respond to it. The personal aspersions are totally unnecessary and largely ineffective.

Wesley Wark, a security expert, told the National Post that Canada’s review of intelligence is “an old-fashioned legacy system, its paper based”. Successive governments have failed to update it. As a result, intelligence reports are sometimes overlooked. But NSICOP was created in 2017, and reports directly to the PM. It has repeatedly warned of foreign interference, and has advocated for security reforms. If NSICOP’s reports did not get noticed or read by the government, the government is dysfunctional. If the government and PM read the reports and chose not to act, they are irresponsible.


Bruce W Uzelman

I grew up in Paradise Hill, a village in Northwestern Saskatchewan. I come from a large family. My parents instilled good values, but yet afforded us, my seven siblings and I, much freedom to do the things we wished to do. I spent my early years exploring the hills and forests and fields surrounding the village, a great way to come of age.

I attended the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. I considered studying journalism at one point, but did not ultimately pursue that. However, I obtained a Bachelor of Arts, Advanced with majors in Economics and Political Science in 1982.


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