OTTAWA — The Liberal government is leaving the door open for a public inquiry into foreign interference, but it wants federal opposition parties to work together to come up with its terms of reference, timeline and potential leader.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc laid out his expectations on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the former governor-general tasked with probing foreign interference in recent federal elections announced his resignation from his post as special rapporteur.
LeBlanc said opposition parties should be able to join forces and help the government determine what comes next, noting they have demonstrated the ability to collaborate on foreign interference matters in recent months. That includes coming together to pass a non-binding motion in the House of Commons that called for David Johnston to step down from his special rapporteur role.
Johnston agreed on Friday to resign by the end of the month, citing the highly partisan atmosphere around his work after he previously vowed that it wouldn't deter him.
"They all voted for an NDP motion last week that said the government should consult with opposition parties, and that's exactly what the prime minister asked me to do yesterday, and what I'm hoping to do tonight, tomorrow and this week," LeBlanc said Saturday at a morning news conference.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was absent from Ottawa Saturday due to a surprise visit to Ukraine. But LeBlanc said Trudeau had formally asked him to consult experts and opposition parties on the next steps, whether those involve continuing the work Johnston started or holding a public inquiry as opposition members have long been demanding.
He said he wants them to come with a list of people that could lead an inquiry, along with suggested terms of reference, a timeline and ideas on the best way to protect top-secret, classified information under existing security laws.
"Really we're looking for their suggestions, and the time for them to be serious is now," LeBlanc said, adding the government doesn't want to wind up in the same "dead-end" in which opposition parties can scuttle an active process.
All parties agree the 2019 and 2021 federal election results were not compromised, but they still say a public inquiry is the only way for Canadians to feel confident in their electoral system.
New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh didn't say if he was willing to work with opposition parties to come up with a solution, but praised the Liberal government for finally hearing the parties' demand for a public inquiry.
"We have always said that the process needs to be independent, public, and transparent. A public inquiry is the only way forward," Singh said in a statement Saturday.
Singh said any public inquiry must be led by a judge with no ties to either the Liberal party or the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation who has also refrained from donating to a federal political party in at least the last decade.
The Conservative party said they will discuss further details of an independent public inquiry once the government announces one.
"The only ones causing problems are the Liberals with the backing of their NDP cover up coalition partners," Sebastian Skamski, spokesman for Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, said in a statement Saturday.
He referenced the confidence and supply agreement both parties have struck until 2025. The arrangement helps the Liberals retain power until then but is not a coalition because New Democrats do not have seats at the cabinet table and are not expected to align on legislation — even if they are not confidence votes.
"From the start, the Liberals ... have treated Beijing’s interference in our democracy like a farce. Enough," Skamski said.
Johnston, who Trudeau appointed to investigate alleged meddling in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, had ruled out the idea of holding a public inquiry on the issue — creating a rift with opposition leaders.
Johnston said a public inquiry was not the right path because making secret information public would run the risk of breaching the trust of Canada's security allies and endangering intelligence sources.
Trudeau said he would follow Johnston's recommendation, and insisted a public inquiry was never off the table for his government.
"All options are on the table. We tasked David Johnston to do the report that he did, and make recommendations. He did excellent work, and now we're looking at the next steps," Trudeau said from Ukraine, Saturday.
Johnston released a report on foreign interference last month that found significant shortcomings in the way the federal government handles intelligence about alleged foreign meddling.
During a House of Commons committee meeting, Johnston said the problem of foreign interference has been growing in Canada, and the government's ability to adapt isn't keeping pace.
He warned parliamentarians the issue needs to be dealt with quickly.
LeBlanc blamed opposition parties for creating a "toxic environment" that eventually pushed Johnston out. He expressed concern that finding someone to either take over as watchdog into foreign interference or lead a public inquiry could be challenging.
"Many eminent Canadians will understandably hesitate to step forward to undertake this kind of work when they see what the opposition parties did to the right honourable David Johnston," LeBlanc said.
"If we can lower the partisan temperature and have a serious conversation....we can find an eminent Canadian to lead this next public phase of the engagement. And quickly. We're not looking for delays."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2023.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press