At first blush, former governor-general David Johnston appears to be the perfect choice for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s special rapporteur tasked with making an assessment of foreign interference — the focus obviously being on communist China — and the integrity of Canada’s democracy.

“Canadians need to have confidence in our electoral system, and in our democracy,” Trudeau said in a press release.

“As Independent Special Rapporteur, David Johnston brings integrity and a wealth of experience and skills, and I am confident that he will conduct an impartial review to ensure all necessary steps are being taken to keep our democracy safe and uphold and strengthen confidence in it.”

But second looks question just how independent Johnston is, which is a requirement Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-François Blanchet insists upon, not that he attracts much allegiance.

But he does have the numbers to help tilt the Liberals.

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, who also happens to have added weight as Leader of the Official Opposition, is not particularly prone to giving Johnston’s appointment an easy ride either, which does make political sense.

Johnston, after all, is not the pure and perfect candidate, nor as independent as one would think, given that it was former PM Stephen Harper who gave him the nod to be governor-general, even extending his term in office.

Right off the top, Johnston is a member of the Pierre Trudeau Foundation, a charitable organization that the younger Trudeau insists he has wisely given wide berth since being elected prime minister in 2015. 

A good Conservative, wed to the Conservative cause, would not make that mistake.

And then there was the fact that Johnston, when he was governor general, visited China in 2013, following a number of past trips to the People’s Republic during his academic career. 

Then Johnston defended a 2017 trip during which he met with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping in Beijing, on the same day Nobel Peace Laureate and democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo died in Chinese custody. 

Less than 24 hours after Trudeau announced Canada’s current federal leaders’ debates commissioner would be switching jobs, Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois politicians were voicing concerns over Johnston’s impartiality. 

The New Democrats, however, say they trust Johnston to do the job, panning the other parties for allowing partisanship to cloud the conversation around the integrity of Canada’s electoral processes.

In its latest denial of electoral interference, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa tweeted Thursday that China has “never interfered in other countries’ internal affairs.” 

Poilievre, however, was adamant. “Justin Trudeau has named a ‘family friend,’ old neighbour from the cottage, and member of the Beijing-funded Trudeau foundation, to be the ‘independent’ rapporteur on Beijing’s interference. Get real,” he said.

“Trudeau must end his cover up. Call a public inquiry. Now.”

Trudeau believes he has the goods to project Johnston’s independence, namely that he worked with PM Harper to be his special adviser in drafting the terms of reference for a public inquiry into the Airbus affair in 2007, otherwise known as the Mulroney-Schreiber affair. 

At the time Harper said he was confident that Johnston would “carry out his duties with diligence and rigour” and provide the federal government with “independent advice.”.

While his mandate has yet to be finalized, Johnston is starting to look into foreign interference in the last two federal general elections, with the goal of making expert recommendations on how to further protect our democracy and uphold Canadians’ confidence in it, including potentially suggesting that a public inquiry be struck.

A representative for Johnston told CTV News that he is not doing interviews about his appointment at this time.


  • Mark Bonokoski

    Mark Bonokoski is a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame and has been published by a number of outlets – including the Toronto Sun, Maclean’s and Readers’ Digest.