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Trudeau defends Johnston and denounces Poilievre for ‘horrible’ attacks


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

The attack took place at an event in Guelph, Ont., two days after Trudeau hired Johnston as a special rapporteur to investigate allegations of Chinese interference in the last two federal elections.

While the event focused on the launch of a $4 billion affordable housing fund, the prime minister found himself strongly defending Johnston’s nomination in the face of opposition attacks.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre accused Trudeau and Johnston of being too close, noting that the Prime Minister had previously referred to them as friends of the family. Johnston is also involved with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

Asked by reporters about their relationship, Trudeau defended the former governor general, appointed to the post of viceroy on the recommendation of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as a Canadian of the highest integrity.

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

Trudeau later said he hoped Johnston’s appointment would “turn the heat on this issue” even as he fanned the fires by accusing the Conservatives of launching “horrific partisan attacks on a man of ‘extraordinary integrity’.

“If anyone needed a very clear indication that partisanship is more important to the Conservatives than hard facts and reality, their totally baseless attacks on David Johnston are exactly that,” he said.

Poilievre was quick to hit back at his own affordable housing event in Vancouver, accusing the Liberals of trying to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s interference while persisting in Johnston’s nomination.

The Conservative leader didn’t mince words when he appeared to all, but accused the former governor general of being an agent of the Chinese government because of his involvement with 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 following allegations that it was 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,” Poilievre said.

“And it was Justin Trudeau who put Mr. Johnson in this terrible position by appointing a member of the China-funded Trudeau Foundation to take on this role of investigating Beijing’s interference in our election campaigns.”

Poilievre again called for a public inquiry into allegations of election interference, something the Bloc Québécois and the NDP are also calling for. The Conservative leader is also set to table a motion in the House of Commons on Monday.

If passed, the motion would avoid the Liberal stonewalling of the ethics committee and force 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 come forward honestly 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 happening again in Canada?

Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration, said there are valid questions and concerns about Johnston’s appointment. And contrary to what Trudeau would like, asking them does not constitute a malicious attack.

“There are things in life that are horrible, and someone who gets criticized in the media isn’t horrible,” Turnbull said.

“He could very well be the right person. But the perception of his independence is worrying enough to make you wonder why the government hasn’t taken these issues more seriously.”

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

Turnbull also accused Poilievre of using overheated rhetoric and making unsubstantiated allegations at a time when serious questions are being raised about the integrity of Canada’s electoral system.

Meanwhile, Johnston said he would help finalize 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 appointed to this position.

“Any attempt to undermine our democracy is a serious matter, and it is essential that we take action to protect our institutions and maintain the integrity of Canadian democracy,” he said.

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

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

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