OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau accused his Conservative rival of trying to score political points at the expense of Canadian democracy on Friday by questioning his personal relationship with former governor general David Johnston.
The attack came during an event in Guelph, Ont., two days after Trudeau tapped Johnston as special rapporteur responsible for investigating claims of Chinese meddling in the last two federal elections.
While the focus of the event was the launch of a $4-billion affordable-housing fund, the prime minister found himself delivering a full-throated defence of Johnston's appointment in the face of opposition attacks.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has accused Trudeau and Johnston of being too close, noting the prime minister has previously called them family friends. Johnston is also involved in the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
Asked by reporters about their relationship, Trudeau defended the former governor general, who was appointed to the viceregal role on the recommendation of Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, as a Canadian of the highest integrity.
"When we are looking to someone who will always put the country first, and put the interests of Canadians at the core of everything he does, there is no better name than David Johnston," the prime minister said.
Trudeau later said he hoped Johnston's appointment would "bring down the temperature on this issue," even as he stoked the fires by accusing the Conservatives of having launched "horrific, partisan attacks against a man of extraordinary integrity."
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"If everyone needed a really clear indication that partisanship is more important to Conservatives than actual facts and reality, their completely unfounded attacks on David Johnston are exactly that," he said.
Poilievre was quick to fire back during his own affordable housing event in Vancouver, accusing the Liberals of trying to turn a blind eye to Beijing's meddling while digging in his heels on Johnston's appointment.
The Conservative leader didn't mince words as he appeared to all but accuse the former governor general of being an agent of the Chinese government due to his involvement in the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
The foundation, a charity named after Trudeau's father that supports mentorship programs for aspiring scholars and leaders, recently said it was returning a $200,000 donation received in 2016 over allegations it came from the Chinese government.
"It's Justin Trudeau that is hurting Canadians' faith in our democracy by covering up the interference by the Communist Chinese government in our elections," Poilievre said.
"And it is Justin Trudeau that has put Mr. Johnson in this terrible situation by naming a member of the China-financed Trudeau Foundation to perform this role of looking into Beijing's interference in our election campaigns."
Poilievre again called for a public inquiry into the allegations of election interference, something the Bloc Québécois and NDP are also demanding. The Tory leader is also preparing to table a motion in the House of Commons on Monday.
If adopted, the motion would sidestep a Liberal filibuster at the ethics committee and compel deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland and Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, to answer questions about the allegations.
"It's time for her to come forward and honestly testify about what happened," Poilievre said of Telford. "What was Beijing's role in supporting Justin Trudeau? And how do we prevent this kind of interference from ever happening again in Canada?"
Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, said there are valid questions and concerns about Johnston's appointment. And contrary to what Trudeau would like, asking them does not amount to a malicious attack.
"There are things that are horrific in life, and somebody being criticized in the media is not horrific," Turnbull said.
"It could be very well that he is the right person. But the perception around where he is independence-wise is enough of a concern that you wonder why the government didn't take those questions more seriously."
That is especially true of Johnston's position as a member of the Trudeau Foundation, given concerns raised about the suspected Chinese donation.
Turnbull also accused Poilievre of using overheated rhetoric and making unfounded allegations at a time when serious questions are being raised about the integrity of Canada's electoral system.
Meanwhile, Johnston said he will have a hand in finalizing his own role as special rapporteur before launching his study. In a statement to The Canadian Press, he said he was "privileged" to have been named to the position.
"Any attempts at undermining our democracy are serious matters, and it is essential that we take action to protect our institutions and uphold the integrity of Canada's democracy," he said.
"I will work with officials to finalize the mandate, which will be made public promptly, to look into foreign interference in the last two federal general elections and make appropriate recommendations on how to further protect our democracy and uphold Canadians' confidence in it."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2023.