You almost have to feel sorry for David Johnston. After a lifetime of esteemed public service and achievement, which includes long stints at the head of key post-secondary institutions and a term as governor general, he’s now being dragged through the filthiest partisan mud for his role as Canada’s “special rapporteur” on foreign interference in our democracy. Nobody ever said public service was supposed to be easy, but it definitely shouldn’t be this hard.
His first report identifies some very real weaknesses in the way security intelligence is communicated (or not) within the federal government. It stress-tests some of the accusations that have been made about foreign interference in our elections, including the one against former Liberal MP Han Dong. And it ultimately concludes that a public inquiry, which had been the path Johnston says he thought he would recommend taking, would only frustrate those looking for more transparency.
“A ‘public inquiry’ would necessarily be done in private and largely replicate the process I have undergone,” Johnston wrote. If the most sensitive information was made public, after all, “foreign adversaries would readily discern sources and methods from this information. It could endanger people. It can neither be made public in its current form nor usefully be aggregated to a level that could be made public,” he went on to say.
For his part, Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre was predictably petulant. He scheduled a press conference before the report was even released to discuss Justin Trudeau’s “coverup of Beijing's interference” and referred to Johnston as the prime minister’s “ski buddy.”
Worse, perhaps, is his continued refusal (along with Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet) to learn more about what Johnston found, some of which is contained in a cache of classified documents. That’s because it would expose them to top-secret intelligence, the contents of which they wouldn’t be able to share with Canadians due to the obvious national security issues. “As for any proposals he may have to silence me,” Poilievre said, “the answer is no — I will not be silenced.”
The pundit class, with a few notable exceptions, struck a similar tone. Over at The Line, which has run at least four critiques of Johnston’s first report, conservative commentator Mitch Heimpel described Johnston as “a fervent defender of his advantaged status quo” and “another among the thoroughly compromised set of politicians, senior civil servants and academics who have, over the decades when it comes to foreign policy regarding China, taken the money and run.”
A big part of the disconnect here is because Johnston is delivering a serious response at a fundamentally unserious time. When the leader of the official Opposition communicates primarily through memes, insults and YouTube videos, getting him to sit down and have a serious discussion about Canada’s strategic security interests is about as likely as your cat filing your income taxes.
His work also assumes a spirit of mutual self-interest and common decency, both on the part of our elected officials and the people charged with covering them, that simply doesn’t exist anymore. In fairness, maybe it hasn’t existed for a while. But it was far more common in the world that Johnston comes from than the one he’s in right now.
David Johnston delivered a serious and sober-minded report on foreign interference in Canada's democracy, one that almost immediately fell on deaf ears. Now, the government's in an even deeper hole — one it keeps digging for itself.
Finally, it betrays a bit of naïveté on Johnston’s part. As he wrote in his report, “This matter is too important for anyone aspiring to lead the country to intentionally maintain a veil of ignorance on these matters. While political parties may disagree about policy and priorities, they should do so from a common understanding of the true facts, not as speculated or hypothesized from media reports based on leaks of partial information.”
But that presumes there aren’t people in politics who are willing to trade ignorance for partisan advantage, or that they put the common welfare of the country above their ability to determine it. Johnston’s been around the block enough times to know that isn’t the case, but he still seems to be operating on the assumption that it is.
To be clear, this isn’t his fault. The blame here falls primarily on the prime minister and his staff, who had to know that Poilievre and his team would draw attention to Johnston’s links to the Trudeau Foundation and the Trudeau family. It reveals one of two things, neither of which are good: either a crippling blindness to the optics of his appointment or a deep cynicism about their broader utility — and willingness to throw a decorated public servant to the digital wolves in order to achieve it.
Johnston tried to address this in his report, detailing his limited interactions with the prime minister and the Trudeau Foundation over the years. He even stress-tested it with Frank Iacobucci, a retired Supreme Court of Canada justice who was appointed to the bench by Brian Mulroney. “I have no doubt whatsoever that I had any conflict of interest and no doubt at all, speaking for myself, about my impartiality,” Johnston said.
I have no doubt about his lack of doubt, either. But we live in a world now where the official Opposition seems determined to sow doubt about our democratic institutions, from the courts to the results of our elections. Case in point: Poilievre simply dismissed Iacobucci as “someone who is part of the Trudeau Foundation” (notice the tense confusion here) because he was a mentor for the organization back in 2006.
There are a few lessons here, in case anyone in Ottawa wants to learn them. First, the days of career public servants being accorded respect for their work is long over. As in Donald Trump’s America, those who dedicate their lives to public service are more likely to attract resentment — unless, of course, they’re running for public office as a conservative. As Johnston said about the criticism of his connections to the Trudeau family, “This kind of baseless set of accusations diminishes trust in our public institutions.”
Of course, that’s a feature rather than a bug for many of the people launching the accusations. Those of us who care about public institutions — including, I presume, the current Liberal government — need to be more careful with how we steward their finite supply of public trust and confidence. Spending it to win the day, an issue or even an election might seem appealing in the short term. In the longer run, though, it leaves us all bankrupt.
Finally, for all the talk about Conservatives or Liberals winning and losing, we need to understand that countries like China and Russia are playing a different — and longer — game here. Having Canadians tear each other apart, and damage our public institutions in the process, is exactly what they want. It’s certainly more valuable to them than a few seats in an election they might try to influence.
If there’s a way out of this mess, it’ll be through the public hearings Johnston suggested — and the Trudeau government subsequently endorsed. As the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt wrote, “The hearings are ultimately a chance to put Johnston’s work where it belongs — in the realm of public trust, before the public, out in the open. It’s public trust in democracy that is at issue here, not whether political parties can get along or even whether there’s a breakdown in communication between government and the national-security system.”
She’s right. Johnston’s report may have rejected some of the more salacious allegations about foreign interference that have been leaked by security personnel, but it risks missing the forest for the trees. What’s at stake now is the perception of an injustice, one that’s being amplified by Conservative politicians and pundits. In an age where trust in institutions and democracy is being actively and deliberately eroded, we need to clear the air before it does more lasting damage. And David Johnston, for all of his many qualifications and achievements, was never going to be the person to do that.