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What Happens Now That Johnston Has Stepped Down as Special Rapporteur?

Former governor general David Johnston has stepped down from his government-appointed role as special rapporteur on foreign election interference, leaving cabinet to hint at the possibility of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau establishing a public inquiry into allegations of foreign meddling.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc told reporters on Parliament Hill on June 10 that Trudeau has instructed him to hold consultations with both “legal scholars” and the leaders of federal opposition parties to determine “what the next steps should look like and determine who best may be suited to lead this public work.”

LeBlanc has previously said that the government is open to the possibility of conducting a public inquiry as a means of continuing the work Johnston started, adding that such a procedure has “never been off the table.”

“All options remain on the table,” LeBlanc said. “The Prime Minister said so when he announced the appointment of Mr. Johnston.”

Trudeau appointed Johnston as special rapporteur in March to investigate allegations of Beijing’s meddling in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 federal elections. Johnston was given top security clearances and instructed to write reports summarizing his investigations “on a rolling basis” until Oct. 31.

The former governor general submitted his first report on May 23, in which he advised the government not to call a public inquiry citing concerns about the relevant intelligence information needing to remain confidential.

All federal opposition parties took issue with Johnston’s decision and passed a motion on May 31 in the House of Commons calling on him to step down from his position.

On June 9, Johnston submitted his letter of resignation to Trudeau, saying that he took the role to “help build trust in our democratic institutions,” but that his work “had the opposite effect.”

“A deep and comprehensive review of foreign interference, its effects, and how to prevent it, should be an urgent priority for your Government and our Parliament,” Johnston wrote to Trudeau.

‘Appoint a Respected Person’

Johnston added in the letter that, although he previously advised against calling for a public inquiry, he recommends the government hold “public hearings both to educate the public and to consider necessary reforms to various aspects of the government’s systems and policies dealing with foreign interference.”

“I encourage you to appoint a respected person, with national security experience, to complete the work that I recommended in my first report,” Johnston wrote. “Ideally you would consult with opposition parties to identify suitable candidates to lead this effort.”

Questioned by reporters about Johnston’s new recommendations outlined in the letter, LeBlanc said on June 10 the federal government thinks there “should be a public process going forward.”

LeBlanc added that he hopes the government and all opposition party leaders can quickly “come to some consensus around those next steps,” and he wanted party leaders to come forward and tell him their choices for who should pick up Johnston’s work or lead a potential public inquiry, along with their wishes for how they want the public process to proceed.

“We have always said that this next phase should include a public process,” LeBlanc said. “But we’re now giving the opposition parties something they’ve asked for, [which] is a chance to have input directly into that process and not simply stand up in question period and demand a public inquiry and not offer any constructive suggestions as to how that might operate.”

Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre spoke to reporters in Ottawa on June 12 and said that he would be reaching out to all opposition party leaders this week to speak about the Tories’ desired terms of reference for any public inquiry, along with their timelines and who they want to lead the process.

“I will work with our opposition colleagues to make sure that the person who fills that role is independent and unbiased in doing a thorough and public investigation,” Poilievre said.

‘No Ties’

Poilievre added that his party wants to ensure that whoever is appointed to the role has “no ties” to either the Trudeau family or the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. All opposition parties criticized Johnston in his role as special rapporteur for having previous connections to both.

Poilievre also addressed the possibility of a public inquiry into alleged foreign interference dragging on for years and said that reference terms and timelines must be outlined if the government proceeds, in order to “get all the truth on the table before the next election happens.”

“We need this public inquiry to be called immediately,” he said.

Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault also spoke to reporters on June 12 and said that if the opposition parties want the government to make a decision on the matter before parliament rises for the summer on June 23, they’ll need to quickly come to a consensus on what kind of public process they want and who they want to lead it.

“That’s clearly a conversation that I hope the party leaders are having,” Boissonnault said.

Bloc Québécois MP and ethics critic René Villemure said on June 12 that his party already “has a list” of potential individuals it would like to see fill Johnston’s old role or lead a public inquiry.

Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet sent that list containing the names of several prominent Quebecers—including former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour—to LeBlanc on June 12.

Trudeau commented on it a day later during question period, saying that it contains “very interesting prospective candidates.”

“We are very open to looking at those candidates as possibilities and we’re also open to working collaboratively, cooperatively on a process that will have the trust and confidence of this House and of Canadians,” Trudeau said in French.


Blanchet told reporters on the morning of June 13 that he had not yet met with any opposition leaders to discuss the matter. A spokesperson for Poilievre confirmed afterward that the two leaders met later in the day.

“If Mr. LeBlanc calls to speak to me, I will make myself available in the following minutes because this is where the most important decisions will be made,” Blanchet told reporters in Ottawa.

Blanchet added that he “does not want to be recruited” as part of any “strategy” to select the public process going forward, but said the onus is on the Liberal government to agree with calls already put forward by opposition parties for the aforesaid inquiry.

“The only player that has to come around with the same ideas is the government,” he said.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has given some of his party’s ideas for who could lead a public inquiry and how it would operate.

Singh said on June 10 that it should be led by a judge who holds no ties to either the federal Liberal party or to the Trudeau Foundation and who has not donated to any federal political party in at least the last 10 years.

Singh also told reporters on June 13 that he has not yet met with the other opposition leaders, but said he is “open to meeting at any time.”

Opposition parties have been calling for a public inquiry into alleged foreign interference in recent months after media reports by Global News and the Globe and Mail broke citing unnamed security sources who alleged Beijing made a coordinated effort to interfere in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

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