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Special Rapporteur David Johnston has refused to take questions from MPs on the House of Commons public accounts committee regarding his previous work at the Trudeau Foundation, leading members of the committee to threaten to issue him a summons.
“We have a meeting scheduled for a week today with individuals who have been involved with the Trudeau Foundation,” said Conservative MP and Committee Chair John Williamson at a meeting of the committee on May 29, according to Blacklock’s Reporter. “I regret to inform you all, I have three who have declined, including the Right Honourable David Johnston.”
Trudeau appointed Johnston to be the special rapporteur on March 15 following media reports suggesting widespread interference by Beijing in Canada’s elections. Instead of launching a public inquiry, which opposition leaders repeatedly called for, the prime minister said he would heed the recommendations of Johnston.
When tabling his report on foreign election interference on May 23, Johnston said a public inquiry should not be held, as the classified information informing his decision could not be revealed to the Canadian public. He instead called for a series of public hearings to “hear from Canadians about the numerous policy questions my work has raised.”
Johnston has been criticized in his role as special rapporteur, given his past relationship with the Trudeau family and membership in the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation. When tabling the report, Johnston dismissed the criticisms by saying he has had no interactions with Trudeau “of a friendly kind” since Trudeau became a Liberal MP.
Johnston resigned his membership with the foundation after his appointment as rapporteur.
Johnston is slated to testify in front of the House Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs—which passed a motion on May 26 re-inviting him to appear—no later than June 6. The committee had called for him to testify in March, but Johnston responded that he would only be available after tabling his report.
Motion to Summon Johnston
The other witnesses who have not agreed to testify before the public accounts committee include Edward Johnson, chair of the Trudeau Foundation, and Mel Cappe, a foundation mentor. “It has been frustrating. We have no one willing to appear,” said Williamson.
The public accounts committee has sought records regarding the foundation’s 2016 misrepresentation of a $140,000 donation from Beijing as a gift from a Canadian donor. The donation came from an offshore company affiliated with the China Cultural Industry Association, a state-backed entity. The foundation’s CEO and most of the board resigned on April 10 following an internal conflict on how to deal with the donation.
“We have a job to do to try to get to the bottom of what is happening at the Trudeau Foundation and we’re not getting documents and we’re not getting witnesses,” said Conservative MP Garnett Genuis. “That is repeated stonewalling enabled, it seems, by the government but also from people involved.”
Genuis served notice of a motion “that the committee authorize the Chair to summon witnesses,” because he said Parliament must determine if the Trudeau Foundation was targeted by Chinese agents. Genuis said the Trudeau Foundation has an “odd” governance structure, as it is a charity that has also accepted a $125 million endowment from the federal government.
On May 29, the public accounts committee adjourned debate on the motion to instruct Johnston to testify or face a formal summons. Liberal MPs expressed alarm, with MP Brenda Shanahan calling it a “drastic step,” and MP Peter Fragiskatos saying it was a “giant leap in the wrong direction.”
While a parliamentary summons has the weight of a court order, it is rarely enforced. The last time Parliament jailed an uncooperative witness was in 1913 when a Montréal contractor was held for three months at Ottawa’s Carleton County Jail for refusing to take questions on payments of kickbacks to federal officials.