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Trudeau defends Johnston, slams Poilievre for ‘horrific’ attacks


Justin Trudeau on Friday accused his Conservative rival of trying to score political points at the expense of Canadian democracy, questioning his personal relationship with former General David Johnston.

The attack happened at an event in Guelph, Ont., two days after Trudeau selected Johnston as special rapporteur to investigate allegations of Chinese interference 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 appeared to fully defend Johnston’s appointment in the face of opposition attacks.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poulevre accused Trudeau and Johnston of being too close, noting that the prime minister has previously referred to them as family friends. Johnston is also involved with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

Asked by reporters about their relationship, Trudeau defended the former governor general, who was promoted to deputy prime minister at the suggestion of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as the highest-ranking Canadian.

“When we look for someone who will always put country first and put the interests of Canadians at the heart of everything, there is no better name than David Johnston,” the Prime Minister said.

Trudeau later said he hoped Johnston’s appointment would “turn the temperature down on this issue,” even as he fanned the flames by accusing the Conservatives of “horrible, partisan attacks on an extraordinarily honest man.”

“If anyone needed a really clear indication that partisanship is more important to conservatives than actual facts and reality, their completely baseless attacks on David Johnston are it,” he said.

Polievre was quick to respond at his own affordable housing event in Vancouver, accusing the Liberals of trying to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s meddling by digging in on his heels in Johnston’s appointment.

The Conservative leader didn’t mince words as he appeared for all to see, but accused the former governor general of being an agent of the Chinese government because of his involvement in the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

The foundation, a charity named after Trudeau’s father that supports mentoring programs for aspiring scientists and leaders, recently announced it was returning a $200,000 donation it received in 2016 amid accusations from the Chinese government.

“It is Justin Trudeau who is undermining Canadians’ faith in our democracy by covering up the Chinese Communist government’s interference in our elections,” said Poillevre.

“And it is Justin Trudeau who has put Mr. Johnson in this dire situation by appointing a member of the Chinese-funded Trudeau Foundation to carry out Beijing’s interference in our election campaign.”

Polievre again called for a public inquiry into allegations of election meddling, which the Bloc Québécois and the NDP have also called for. The Tory leader is also set to table a motion in the House of Commons on Monday.

If passed, the motion would bypass the Liberals’ debate on the ethics committee and force Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Trudeau’s chief of staff Kathy Telford to answer questions about the allegations.

“It’s time for him to come forward and testify honestly about what happened,” Polievre said of Telford. “What has been Beijing’s role in supporting Justin Trudeau? And how do we prevent this type of intervention from happening again in Canada?”

Laurie Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration, said there were valid questions and concerns about Johnston’s appointment. And contrary to what Trudeau would have it, asking them is not a malicious attack.

“There are things that are scary in life, and someone being criticized in the media is not scary,” Turnbull said.

“It could very well be that he’s the right person. But the perception of where it stands in terms of independence is worrying enough that you wonder why the government didn’t take these issues more seriously.”

That’s especially true of Johnston’s position as a member of the Trudeau Foundation, given the concerns raised about the alleged Chinese donation.

Turnbull also accused Polievre of using tired rhetoric and making baseless accusations at a time when serious questions are being raised about the integrity of Canada’s electoral system.

Johnston, meanwhile, said he would get to work on finalizing his own role as special rapporteur before starting his own study. In a statement to The Canadian Press, he said he was “privileged” to be appointed to the position.

“Any attempt to undermine our democracy is a serious matter, and it’s important that we take steps to protect our institutions and protect the integrity of Canada’s democracy,” he said.

“I will work with officials to finalize the mandate, which will be released soon, to examine foreign interference in the last two federal general elections and make appropriate recommendations on how to further protect our democracy and maintain Canadians’ trust in it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 17, 2023.

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