The federal government’s special rapporteur on foreign interference did not interview a former Liberal MP who allegedly was supported by the Chinese government in the 2019 election.
David Johnston, a former governor general appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to review allegations of foreign meddling, told a House of Commons’ committee Tuesday that he did not interview Don Valley North MP Han Dong during his two-month probe.
That’s despite finding that “there clearly were strange practices, unusual practices going on” during Dong’s 2019 nomination contest in the safe Liberal riding. Johnston said his team did not conclude that those “strange practices” could be attributed to the People’s Republic of China, though his report noted suspicions that they could be.
“Irregularities were observed with Mr. Dong’s nomination in 2019, and there is well-grounded suspicion that the irregularities were tied to the PRC Consulate in Toronto, with whom Mr. Dong maintains relationships,” Johnston wrote in his report last month.
Johnston, who had access to classified intelligence and senior national security officials for his probe, said he could not reveal the top-secret information that led him to his conclusions.
“In reviewing the intelligence, I did not find evidence that Mr. Dong was aware of the irregularities or the PRC Consulate’s potential involvement in his nomination.”
Pressed by Conservative MP Michael Cooper on whether Dong was aware of irregularities during his nomination campaign, Johnston said in committee “there clearly was discussion between Mr. Dong and the consulate in Toronto” generally, “but that’s the extent to my understanding.”
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“Why did you not bother to interview Mr. Dong?,” Cooper asked.
“We, I think, interviewed the people who had information about these particular matters,” Johnston responded.
“Mr. Dong, at that time, I think, was proceeding with his own lawsuit. And we felt this was something he should get on with.”
Citing unnamed sources, Global News reported in February that Dong was one of at least 11 Toronto-area MPs who were supported by Beijing in the 2019 general election, which saw the Liberals returned to Ottawa with a minority government.
In March, Global reported that Dong discussed China’s detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor with a senior Chinese diplomat in February 2021, and, “privately advised … that Beijing should hold off freeing Kovrig and Spavor.”
Dong strongly denied the allegations, stepped down from Liberal caucus, and is now suing Global News. The Toronto Star reported last week that Dominic LeBlanc, a senior cabinet minister and longtime friend of Trudeau, is reviewing whether Dong can rejoin the Liberal caucus.
Johnston’s preliminary report into foreign interference, released last month, confirmed a number of aspects of recent reports, both from Global and from the Globe and Mail newspaper, about China’s increasing encroachment in Canada’s domestic affairs.
But it also disputed key aspects of that reporting, and said it was “false” that Dong advocated for the Two Michaels’ continued detention – but did not offer any information which led him to that conclusion. Johnston did confirm that Dong, a backbench MP, had a conversation with a senior member of China’s Toronto-based diplomatic staff regarding the Two Michaels.
On Tuesday, Johnston suggested that the allegations Dong advocated for the Two Michaels’ continued detention were based on a draft memo that was substantially revised and came to “quite a different conclusion of what transpired.”
After the report was released, Dong suggested it was “vindication” that he did nothing wrong. Trudeau suggested that Dong may rejoin Liberal caucus, but that now appears to depend on LeBlanc’s review.
But Johnston used his committee appearance Tuesday to reiterate serious problems with how successive federal governments have approached the issue of foreign interference, including how intelligence is shared within the most senior ranks of the government.
“I have identified significant shortcomings in the government’s ability to detect, deter and combat this threat. This must be remedied urgently,” Johnston told MPs.
Johnston’s role as special rapporteur has come under intense scrutiny, particularly after the former governor general recommended against a public inquiry into the issue – something that the opposition parties have been proposing for months.
Last week, those opposition parties combined forces in a House of Commons vote that asked Johnston to “step aside” and discontinue the second phase of his work, which will include public consultations. Johnston, who was appointed governor general on the advice of Stephen Harper, has so far resisted those calls.
“I have heard clearly the disagreement with my recommendations not to call a public inquiry, as well as allegations about my integrity and my independence,” Johnston told MPs.
“These allegations are, put simply, false, and the decision to repeat them does not make them true. The issue of foreign interference deserves serious and robust debate. I will continue to invite disagreement on my recommendations, but will not be deterred from completing my work.”