OTTAWA — Special rapporteur David Johnston will release his decision Tuesday on whether the federal Liberals should hold a public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canadian elections.
The decision comes after months of revelations in the media, based on leaks from intelligence sources, that led to a Chinese diplomat being expelled from Canada, an MP suing a television network for millions of dollars in a defamation lawsuit and an internal crisis within the Trudeau Foundation.
Experts consulted by the National Post said they are hoping for some sort of inquiry, which would help to restore Canadians’ trust and confidence in their public institutions before the next federal election, expected as early as next year.
A public inquiry is just one option; Johnston could recommend instead that he continue his own investigation and include his findings in his report that is due in October. But the experts say that position would be “untenable” for him and for the federal government.
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“There’s just no way that he could do that, and I think it would be subject to supremely intense attacks by opposition parties and independent experts that will be roundly condemned, and that those kinds of condemnations will only again, further erode Canadians’ confidence,” said Artur Wilczynski, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa and retired intelligence official.
He thinks an inquiry is the only way to restore that confidence.
“I really do hope that Mr. Johnston does recommend a full public inquiry,” Wilczynski said. “Because my deep concern is that in the absence of that decision, Canadians’ lack of confidence in our democratic institutions, I think will be further eroded and that for me is deeply troubling.”
Johnston, who served as governor general from 2010 to 2017, has been a controversial choice, in part because he was a member of the Trudeau Foundation, the scholarship fund started in memory of Pierre Trudeau. The foundation received a $140,000 donation with links to Beijing. It has since returned the money.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has refused to be interviewed on the issue by Johnston, whom he describes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “ski buddy,” “cottage neighbor” and “family friend.”
“It’s going to look like he’s covering something up on the government’s behalf if he doesn’t allow a public inquiry,” said Lori Turnbull, professor of Political Science at Dalhousie University.
If Johnston recommends an inquiry, experts will be taking a close look at its scope, its method of work and its timeline. And they already say the devil will be in the details.
Wilczynski said his preference would be for a broader scope, as opposed to a mandate that would look at one specific actor like China.
“Because if we look at it too narrowly, I’m afraid that we will look at the problem through the lens of what already happened in 2019 and 2021, as opposed to getting ready for the election that’s coming in 2024 or 2025.
“If we just narrowly constrain it to one specific actor, we’re leaving a bunch of other communities vulnerable to foreign interference by a wider set of both state and non-state actors who are acting as a malign influence in Canada’s democracy.”
In terms of methodology, Wilczynski would like to see a comprehensive public threat briefing from national security and intelligence organizations and believes that those organizations “can do far more in terms of speaking frankly and directly to Canadians about the threats.”
“I think we, in Canada, have a history of over-classifying things and not being as transparent as we can and should be, and that lack of transparency, I think, aggravates Canadians’ mistrust of the institutions that are there to protect them. So we need those organizations to be out speaking as frankly as they can about what they see.”
Parliamentary committees attempting to probe the allegations have been frustrated by intelligence officials who say they are limited in what they can share publicly.
“I’m personally hoping that… there’s significant thought given to the state and the health of democracy in Canada, and not just some, you know, fact-finding mission that I think is impossible anyway, with respect to what the government did and knew and when, because, that’s not what a public inquiry can do,” said Turnbull.
Finally, if Johnston is to recommend a public inquiry, experts will be looking at the timeline and see if it extends beyond the last two elections in 2019 and 2021.
“The devil is going to be in the details about that, right?” said Turnbull. “Is he going to do a general sort of broad mandate for such an inquiry or is he going to say we’re going to look into the last two elections? Is he going to say we’re going to look into the last four elections thereby, including the Harper government in that sweep?”
In any case, federal opposition parties have already made it clear that they expect nothing less than a public inquiry.
“(NDP leader) Jagmeet Singh already stated that a public inquiry was the only option at this stage so for the Liberals not doing so might endanger the very survival of their supply and conference agreement with the NDP,” said Daniel Beland, professor at McGill University.
Turnbull thinks that the Trudeau government will ultimately want to have an inquiry completed before the next election takes place to take some of the heat off them
“I think what they want is some kind of very focused report that gives Canadian democracy, with respect to foreign interference, a clean bill of health and show that they are no more implicated in this than the Harper government,” she said.
As for the Conservatives, Turnbull thinks they will want to have this inquiry take place in the next months so they can use some of its content to blast the government.
“At the end of the day it’s just, in some ways, a kind of strange thing that everybody’s waiting on one person who is not elected to say whether we’re going to have an inquiry into foreign interference or not.”