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Government watchdog lodges second complaint against Johnston report

Democracy Watch alleges interim report on foreign interference mired in multiple conflicts of interest
Former governor general David Johnston was appointed as a special rapporteur by cabinet order on April 5, 2023

First, an independent watchdog complained to the federal Ethics Commission about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s choice to appoint a family friend and former governor general to investigate foreign interference by China.

Now, the lawyer that David Johnston chose to help him analyze documents and conduct interviews has prompted a second complaint from Democracy Watch.

On Wednesday, the day after Johnston recommended against a public inquiry on foreign interference, Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher said lawyer Sheila Block’s nearly $7,600 in donations between 2006 and 2022 to the Liberal Party of Canada add “another layer to the layer cake of conflicts of interest that mean that everything Johnston says and reports on the subject of foreign interference has no credibility at all.”

Block, from the Torys LLP firm in Toronto, was named to the Order of Canada last year. In 2018, she led a Green Party-ordered investigation that cleared leader Elizabeth May of workplace harassment. Block appeared at Johnston’s Tuesday news conference in Ottawa and spoke only when prompted at the end.

“The professionalism that we encountered with all the people who helped Mr. Johnston in his work was excellent,” Block said. “We are blessed with a public service that is very top notch.”

Block did not respond to phone or email messages.

Democracy Watch’s initial complaint took issue with Johnston’s lengthy association with the Trudeau family personally and as a member of the Pierre Trudeau Foundation. He was appointed as a special rapporteur by cabinet order on April 5, at Trudeau’s pleasure, for $1,400 to $1,600 per day until Dec. 12, without any statutory powers to compel production of documents or witness testimony under oath.

Asked by a reporter on Tuesday, Johnston said he had “no doubt whatsoever that I had any conflict of interest” after seeking advice from retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci, who practises at the same firm as Block.

Johnston, Canada’s governor general from 2010 to 2017, taught at the University of Toronto law school from 1968 to 1974, at the same time as Iacobucci.

Trudeau Foundation member Iacobucci prepared a 2018 legal opinion for corruption-plagued SNC-Lavalin that unsuccessfully urged then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in favour of a deferred prosecution agreement.

“There is no need to wait for an independent inquiry before closing loopholes and correcting flaws in ethics, donation, election and lobbying laws that make secret foreign interference in Canadian elections legal and easy to do,” Conacher said.

The former editor-in-chief of Sing Tao Daily’s Vancouver edition, who has been subject to intimidation by the Beijing-directed government in Hong Kong, said Johnston’s report left him speechless.

“I regret to tell that I have no interest to respond to such a ridiculous recommendation from the former governor general,” said Victor Ho.

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, speaking in Toronto on Wednesday, promised to order a full public inquiry if his party wins the next election, expected by fall 2025. He vowed to appoint an experienced judge with power to subpoena and decide what evidence should be made public.

"We have to put this in the hands of a trusted judge rather than in the hands of Trudeau’s ski buddy, cottage neighbour, family friend and Trudeau Foundation member,” Poilievre said.

Meanwhile, Trudeau said Wednesday in Winnipeg that it is up to Don Valley North MP Han Dong whether he wants to return to caucus or focus on clearing his name.

“It's his choice but I look forward to that conversation,” Trudeau told reporters.

Johnston’s report said Dong did discuss the detention of hostages Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor with Chinese consular officials, and that he maintained close relationships with those diplomats at least through the 2021 election. However, Johnston said Global News reporting included a false allegation that Dong advised those officials to extend the two Michaels’ detention. Johnston also said he found no intelligence suggesting federal candidates received Chinese government money in 2019 through a middleman.

Dong resigned from caucus on March 22. In a statement on Tuesday, he said he felt vindicated by Johnston’s report and would proceed with his defamation lawsuit against Global News and its parent company, Corus Entertainment.

Dong visited the West Coast last July and charged taxpayers $2,391.73 for transportation. The co-chair of the Canada-China Legislative Association met in Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond with officials from the Chinese consulate and heads of groups aligned with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front program.