A public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canadian elections and society is not needed, special rapporteur David Johnston says.
The 81-year-old former governor general made the recommendation Tuesday after being given two months to do so by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau back in March. Johnston had until May 23 to decide whether an inquiry or another form of independent review was warranted.
However, public hearings should be conducted on the allegations, Johnston said. Trudeau has said he will abide by Johnston’s recommendations.
“What allowed me to determine whether there had actually been interference cannot be disclosed in public. A public review of classified intelligence simply cannot be done for that reason,” Johnston said.
Johnston also found in his report Tuesday that there are serious shortcomings in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government. However, he said he found no examples of ministers, the prime minister or their offices knowingly or negligently failing to act on intelligence, advice or recommendations.
The prime minister has been under pressure for months from opposition leaders to hold a public inquiry amid mounting allegations of foreign meddling in Canadian society, including recent elections.
Those allegations, detailed in reports from Global News and the Globe and Mail, have put increased scrutiny on the government to explain when it was made aware of foreign threats and attempted meddling, and what the Liberals have done to prevent it in the future.
Experts have said a public inquiry would allow for a detailed, transparent conversation about what kind of threat Canada is actually facing, and allow the Liberals to demonstrate they are taking the issue seriously.
“When I began this process. I thought I would come to the same conclusion — that I would recommend a public inquiry. While it would have been an easy choice, it would not be the correct one,” Johnston said.
Artur Wilczynski, a former national security and intelligence official who served with the Communications Security Establishment and Global Affairs Canada, told Global News Johnston’s decision to not call for a public inquiry was disappointing.
“All that did in my mind is perpetuate the deeply partisan divide that’s out there, instead of trying to neutralize that particular aspect of the conversation, which in my view is even more damaging to Canadian democratic institutions than anything else,” he said.
Trudeau tapped Johnston in March to lead an investigation into the extent and impact of foreign interference in Canada, and to issue recommendations on further steps the government should take.
Johnston was also tasked with deciding the best forum in which to study the issue, with opposition MPs calling for a public inquiry to be struck.
A series of further investigations into foreign interference are underway within Parliament and Canada’s national security agencies.
“A public inquiry will simply not deliver the level of transparency and urgency Canadians expect. The intelligence that I have reviewed is and must remain secret. As a result, the reality is any credible public inquiry would not be public at all,” Johnston said.
“In contrast, by conducting a thorough review of my conclusions and recommendations, our intelligence oversight committees … have the opportunity and the duty to help restore Canadians’ trust in our democratic institutions.”
The public hearings Johnston recommends should address parts of his mandate that are not classified, he said. Johnston suggested he conduct the hearings as part of the second phase of his work. Johnston will be in the role until October.
He added the public hearings will include members of diaspora communities and experts in national security and international relations.
Johnston said he will investigate the challenge of using classified intelligence in law enforcement, how to amend the CSIS Act to strengthen protections against foreign interference, and how the government deals with threats against elected officials, among other measures.
“Canadians need to understand the threat this issue presents and the mechanisms needed to address it,” he said.
He also said while the recent media reporting on allegations of foreign interference have raised “legitimate questions which deserve complete answers,” much of that reporting has “been based on limited and partial intelligence.”
“The reporting has been made without the benefit of the full context provided by all relevant materials. Experienced intelligence professionals understand that individual pieces of intelligence must be viewed with considerable skepticism,” Johnston said.
“Only upon seeing the full picture with the benefit of all relevant intelligence can one conclude that much of the reported intelligence has been misconstrued in media reports.”
Global News editor-in-chief Sonia Verma has stood by the outlet’s reporting, saying in a March statement that “Global News is governed by a rigorous set of journalistic principles and practices, and we are very mindful of the public interest and legal responsibility of this important accountability reporting.”
Johnston was asked several times during the press conference questions around whether he was effectively asking Canadians to “take my word for what I found there” in referencing conclusions when he could not publicly show the evidence they are based upon.
“What we’re saying is that a public inquiry into the questions of who knew what, what they did at what time and what they did with it cannot be discussed in public because to understand that fully, you must deal with classified information,” he said, before responding to a related question on whether more can be done to share additional information with Canadians.
“We can’t divulge everything that Canadians would like to know,” he responded. “Can we do more in being somewhat more transparent with what is classified or not? I think we can — somewhat.”
Ottawa will follow Johnston’s recommendations, Trudeau says
Trudeau thanked Johnston for his work so far on, and said his government will follow his recommendations.
However, opposition MPs weren’t pleased with the findings.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has argued Johnston, who was appointed as governor general by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, is unable to do his work independently because he used to be a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
Poilievre further claimed Johnston’s report is a “whitewash attempt” of the Liberals’ handling of the issue.
“We need a full public inquiry to get to the bottom of Beijing’s interference in our democracy, and that’s what I will deliver when I am prime minister,” he said.
“There will be a full public inquiry into this mess and in the meantime, we will continue to push for a real foreign influence registry that exposes anyone who does paid work on behalf of foreign dictatorship to manipulate our politics. It’s just common sense.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has been among the voices calling for a public inquiry, said Johnston’s recommendation is “incredibly disappointing.”
“We firmly believe Canadians would benefit from a fulsome, public investigation that maintains the integrity of our intelligence that must be kept confidential,” he said in a statement.
“New Democrats will keep pushing for an independent, public inquiry that gets people the answers they deserve and fully restores trust in our elections.”
Singh added an inquiry could be held in a forum that respects national security, pointing to the example of the investigation into the government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act during 2022’s so-called “Freedom Convoy.”
Trudeau said the government has sent letters to opposition party leaders with offerings of security clearances to “understand the facts,” and hoped they would take up the offer. Singh said he would consider it, while Poilievre said he wouldn’t accept any process designed to “silence me.”
“I don’t think Canadians would want or expect any of their leaders to choose ignorance when they can choose to have the facts laid out for them,” Trudeau said.
“I can assure you in our democracy, there are always going to be plenty of things to criticize the government on and to challenge us to do better, but let us please (be) grounded in an understanding of the true facts and not choose to risk weakening Canadians confidence in our institutions by building partisan attacks on things that are patently untrue.”