Foreign interference: Johnston recommends public hearings
A public process is required on the issue of foreign interference, special rapporteur David Johnston says, but not in the form of a public inquiry.
Instead, Johnston announced Tuesday that he plans to hold “a series of public hearings with Canadians” to shine more light on the “problem of foreign interference” and inform the public and policymakers on the threat it poses, and ways to address it with urgency.
After months of political scrutiny from an opposition united in their calls for an independent and open airing of the facts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come out in full support of Johnston’s decision to sidestep an inquiry, continuing to assert his government has, and will continue to handle the issue with the seriousness it deserves.
“Foreign governments are undoubtedly attempting to influence candidates and voters in Canada,” Johnston writes in his first report in the role of special rapporteur. “Much has been done already, but considerably more remains to be done to strengthen our capacity to resist foreign interference.”
Rather than advising the federal government to strike a public inquiry and appoint someone else to lead it, the former governor general intends to do the work himself in the five remaining months of his mandate.
During these hearings Johnston says he plans to speak to and hear from Canadians — particularly those in diaspora communities — as well as current and former government officials, knowledgeable experts, and “other interested parties” about foreign interference and ways to improve Canada’s response to it.
“This will be a public process, but not a public inquiry, as I do not need the subpoena powers provided by the Inquiries Act to gather this information and encourage public attention on these matters,” Johnston wrote in his report.
Speaking to reporters following the report’s release, Johnston acknowledged his conclusion would be met with skepticism by some, but said the challenge is that what allowed him to determine whether there has been interference “cannot be disclosed publicly,” Johnston said. “A public review of classified intelligence simply cannot be done.”
Johnston said his conclusion that a public inquiry is unnecessary was informed by speaking to dozens of high-level federal officials both in PMO and the public service, cabinet ministers and MPs, as well as examining first-hand thousands of pages of classified and unclassified documents. Trudeau sat down to speak to Johnston as part of this work, on May 9 after much of his information had been collected — timing Johnston said was “intentional.”
And while there appears to be a “lack of accountability” around who receives certain pieces of intelligence that needs addressing, despite what Johnston characterized as “too much posturing, and ignoring facts in favour of slogans,” he said he couldn’t identify any instances of the prime minister negligently failing to take the issue seriously.
As a result, he said a public inquiry at this stage would “not advance the goals of transparency or trust any further than I have taken them, and raise expectations that will ultimately be disappointed.”
Johnston’s intention with the hearings is not to focus on “who knew what and what did they do about it” because he feels these questions are covered in this initial public report, as well as a confidential annex provided to the prime minister, cabinet, and security-cleared opposition party officials.
Johnston was tapped in March by Trudeau to examine whether a public inquiry or other “mechanisms or transparent processes” such as a judicial review were necessary.
This move stemmed from heightened public concerns over alleged election meddling by China during the last two federal campaigns, prompted by reporting largely based on intelligence leaks.
Noting the mixed views among Canadians and experts around a public inquiry, Trudeau had vowed that the Liberals would “abide by” Johnston’s guidance around whether an inquiry was needed, and respond to any other recommendations.
Responding to the report on Parliament Hill Tuesday, Trudeau said he welcomed Johnston’s hearing plans, and confirmed he won’t be launching a public inquiry as he has “total confidence” in Johnston continuing.
Trudeau said he’s reached out to the opposition party leaders offering them security clearances to review the relevant intelligence on which Johnston has based his findings.
“I think everyone can agree with the? former governor general’s assessment that all leaders must work from a common understanding of true facts,” Trudeau said.
“Every one of us has a responsibility to stand up for our democracy, and undermining it for political gain is wrong and damaging. Rigorous debate is a pillar of democracy, absolutely. So is interrogating our institutions, and holding all elements of government to account,” said the prime minister. “But democracy is not a game. There are lines we must not cross. We must never play into the hands of those overseas, or at home, who want us to lose faith in our democratic institutions.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino (centre) and Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair arrive to hold a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
WHAT CONCLUSIONS DID JOHNSTON REACH?
In addition to the question of an inquiry, Johnston’s 55-page interim report dives into the issue of foreign interference more broadly, examines what was alleged and the voracity of related reporting in nine specific cases, what he learned from speaking to those involved, and steps taken to counter and communicate about foreign interference.
In Tuesday’s report, Johnston includes four additional initial conclusions:
- More needs to be done to counter the unquestioned attempts by foreign governments to interfere in Canadian affairs;
- When viewed in full context with all relevant intelligence “several leaked materials that raised legitimate questions turn out to have been misconstrued in some media reports”;
- There are “serious shortcomings in the way intelligence is communicated and processed from security agencies through to government,” but no examples of ministers or the prime minister “knowingly or negligently failing to act” have been identified; and
- His findings should be referred to and reviewed by the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and the National Security and Intelligence Review Committee (NSIRA), and both oversight bodies should report publicly if they disagree.
“What I’ve tried to emphasize in the area of intelligence, one is dealing with different pieces of information. We used the analogy of painting a picture. It’s a number of different brushstrokes, you must have most or all of them together before you have picture,” Johnston said. “Those leaks were based on partial information and in our investigation… based on open information and more particularly, classified information, we came to the conclusion that there was not negligence on the part of any of the ministers or the prime minister, nor malfeasance in the sense of attempting to twist this for partisan advantage.”
“What there was, is a system that is not functioning effectively and how we manage that intelligence, how it crystallizes into something… and then into some recommendation for action. Our system was not producing that in the way it should… We have much to do to be much more effective, much more professional, much more harmonized. And that’s where we hope to spend a good deal of time—including [during the] public hearings—in the second part of our mandate,” Johnston continued during his Tuesday press conference.
Responding to Johnston’s report, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa restated that the allegations of Beijing-backed interference “are purely groundless” claiming that it has been proven “time and again that none of these accusations are based on facts.”
WHY NOT A PUBLIC INQUIRY?
Johnston revealed Tuesday that when Trudeau appointed him, his “preliminary view” was that he was “very likely” to recommend a public inquiry.
After considering whether a public inquiry would enhance public trust in Canada’ electoral process, Johnston said the sensitive material and information that would “lie at the heart” of whether the federal government did enough to confront the claims of interference, cannot be aired publicly.
While noting the value public inquiries can and have had — pointing to the most recent Public Order Emergency Commission focused on the “Freedom Convoy” — Johnston said, in this case, it would not be able to provide the benefits of a full airing of the facts as others have.
“Instead, I would be handing off a problem to someone else, without solving it, or even providing a process by which the problem could be solved. This would prolong, but not enhance, the process,” Johnston said.
Over the last six months, a series of senior federal security officials have testified publicly before parliamentary committees that while attempts were made to meddle, the integrity of Canada’s elections were upheld, while expressing the limitations of what they’d be able to say in an open forum.
Reporters look over David Johnston’s first report as Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference during a lock-up in Ottawa on May 23, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Johnston said that as a result of these well-founded and required national security constraints and secrecy oaths, any “credible” inquiry would not be able to be public at all, calling what the leakers have done “wrong” and “damaging” to the confidence Canadians are supposed to have in those entrusted with this information.
Asked a few ways by different reporters whether his public hearings will be just as constrained in substantive outcomes as an inquiry, and if he’s essentially asking Canadians to take his word for what he’s found while looking behind closed doors or at secret documents, Johnston pointed to the ongoing work of the parliamentary probes and other intelligence bodies examining the issue.
“This is a problem in that one can’t divulge everything that Canadians would like to know,” Johnston said.
OPPOSITION STILL WANT INQUIRY
Deciding against recommending a public inquiry, and further, deciding to take on the public hearings himself — given the heightened politicization surrounding his appointment — was quickly met with considerable ire from the opposition parties who have ardently been pushing for an independent airing of the facts.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre panned Johnston’s findings, and said he doesn’t trust Johnston to conduct the public hearings.
“He has no business in this job because it is a fake job that he is incapable of doing impartially. None of his recommendations can be taken seriously because he’s in a conflict of interest,” Poilievre said, adding Conservatives will continue to push for a public inquiry, and a foreign influence registry.
Johnston did not meet with Poilievre over the course of his probe, but Johnston did meet with former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole — who led the party during the 2021 general election.
O’Toole wrote Tuesday morning that his meeting with Johnston last week left him with the impression that the interaction was “nothing more than a box checking exercise.”
But, Johnston said Tuesday he reached out to O’Toole for a meeting after several failed attempts to sit down with Poilievre, and that the former Conservatives leader’s contributions were considered “with care.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Johnston’s decision to not call for a public inquiry was “incredibly disappointing,” and said he will continue to push for one.
“We thank Mr. Johnston for his investigation but there are still unanswered questions that could be responsibly addressed by a public inquiry,” Singh said. “While public meetings can be useful, the powers of a public inquiry are more rigorous… We firmly believe Canadians would benefit from a fulsome, public investigation that maintains the integrity of our intelligence that must be kept confidential.”
Bloc Québécois MP and democratic institutions spokesperson Alain Therrien told reporters Tuesday it’s a “big day for the Chinese government, and a big day for Justin Trudeau, a sad day for Quebec and Canadian democracy.”
Therrien questioned Johnston for largely laying the blame at the feet of the media and CSIS for allegations of foreign interference, while absolving the Liberal government. He said his party is still calling for a public inquiry, and that Johnston’s claims it would be too difficult to hold such an inquiry without divulging classified information are “false.”
Johnston’s appointment has been controversial from the outset, with opposition parties questioning the former debates commissioner’s impartiality and potential conflict of interest given his long-standing close connection to the Trudeau family and his past membership status with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation that’s faced scrutiny over a China-linked donation.
Addressing these concerns head-on on Tuesday, Johnston sought to clarify the “basic facts” about their relationship and the extent they’ve been in contact since Trudeau took office, as well as his involvement with the Trudeau Foundation.
Johnston said Tuesday that he’s been appointed to dozens of public leadership positions on boards and such over the years, by politicians across the political spectrum, noting that the current fervour around his role if it continues, may have a chilling effect on other publicly-minded individuals from stepping into similar positions in the future.
“I’ve been fortunate in my public life to have served as chair of, or a member of an advisory committee, or task forces, on probably two to three dozen different occasions over the years… and in none of those previous occasions has my impartiality or integrity ever been questioned. This is the first time it has happened. And let me simply say that’s very troubling for me, because this kind of baseless set of accusations diminishes trust in our public institutions,” Johnston said.
David Johnston, Independent Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference, middle leaves after presenting his first report in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
WHAT’S NEXT FOR JOHNSTON’S WORK?
Tuesday’s report from Johnston was not meant to be the end of his work on the file. He was already mandated to spend the months ahead continuing to take a more all-encompassing look at the issue of foreign interference and the integrity of Canada’s democracy and report on his further findings.
Johnston said he hopes to begin the hearings “at the earliest possible date” and plans to issue a second report based on what he hears, while taking on “a number of critical issues” up until Oct. 31, 2023.
In addition to the hearings, Johnston said he wants to look into the challenges of using classified intelligence in law enforcement, and how it might be addressed. He will also review the role and structure NSICOP, the way intelligence is funneled to top officials, and will suggest amendments to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act “that might assist in fighting foreign interference.
“I will also review the merits of a government-led process for declassification of information to enhance transparency and look at the case for a national security committee of cabinet,” Johnston added during his press conference. “And I will examine the issue of how the government deals with threats against elected officials. Canadians need to understand the threat this issue presents and the mechanisms needed to address it.”
With files from CTV News’ Spencer Van Dyk
Halifax-area wildfire 85% contained and not expected to spread, officials say – CBC.ca
If the power or data on your device is low, get your wildfire updates on CBC Lite. It’s our low-bandwidth, text-only website.
A wildfire burning northwest of Halifax is now 85 per cent contained, as Nova Scotia is getting much-needed rain Saturday.
Dave Steeves, a technician of forest resources with the Department of Natural Resources, said the fire hasn’t grown and is still about 950 hectares in size.
“We have changed from ‘out of control’ to a state of being held,” Steeves said during a media briefing early Saturday.
He said that means the fire is not likely to spread.
“The rain that we are getting now is going to help the suppression issues, but that being said this fire is not out and it will not be declared out for some time.”
He said any additional resources will be heading down to Shelburne County, where a massive wildfire is burning.
Some residents who had been evacuated from the area were allowed to return home on Friday, including those on Lucasville Road, St. George Boulevard and in the Stillwater Lake area.
Another livestreamed briefing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday.
The Halifax Regional Municipality declared a local state of emergency Sunday night in order to access additional support.
Late Friday, the municipality said some resources were no longer required.
The comfort centre at the Beaver Bank Kinsac Community Centre has closed, and the Canada Games Centre has transitioned from a 24-hour evacuation centre to a comfort centre.
Comfort centres remain open at:
- Canada Games Centre | 26 Thomas Raddall Drive will operate as a comfort centre from noon to 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 3.
- Black Point and Area Community Centre | 8579 St. Margarets Bay Road will be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 3.
According to a release, Nova Scotia Health’s mobility primary care clinic is hosting a drop-in clinic at the Canada Games Centre on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Major insurance companies will be available to speak with affected residents on Saturday at the Canada Games Centre. Future opportunities to speak with representatives will be available in the coming days.
Hundreds killed after passenger trains derail in India, officials say
At least 233 people were killed and 900 were injured when two passenger trains collided in India’s Odisha state, a government official said on Saturday, making the rail accident the country’s deadliest in more than a decade.
The death toll from Friday’s crash is expected to increase, state Chief Secretary Pradeep Jena said in a tweet.
He said over 200 ambulances had been called to the scene of the accident in Odisha’s Balasore district and 100 additional doctors, on top of 80 already there, had been mobilized.
Early on Saturday morning, Reuters video footage showed police officials moving bodies covered in white cloths off the railway tracks.
Footage from Friday showed rescuers climbing up the mangled wreck of one of the trains to find survivors, while passengers called for help and sobbed next to the wreckage.
2 express trains collided
The collision occurred at about 7 p.m. local time on Friday when the Howrah Superfast Express, running from Bangalore to Howrah, West Bengal, collided with the Coromandel Express, which runs from Kolkata to Chennai.
Authorities have provided conflicting accounts on which train derailed first to become entangled with the other. The Ministry of Railways said it has initiated an investigation into the crash.
Although Chief Secretary Jena and some media reports have suggested a freight train was also involved in the crash, railway authorities have yet to comment on that possibility.
An extensive search-and-rescue operation has been mounted, involving hundreds of fire department personnel and police officers as well as sniffer dogs. National Disaster Response Force teams were also at the site.
On Friday, hundreds of young people lined up outside a government hospital in Odisha’s Soro to donate blood.
According to Indian Railways, its network facilitates the transportation of more than 13 million people every day. But the state-run monopoly has had a patchy safety record because of aging infrastructure.
Odisha’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik declared a day of state mourning on June 3 as a mark of respect to the victims.
Meta to start blocking news content for up to 5% of Canadian Facebook, Instagram users
Meta will soon block some Canadian users of Facebook and Instagram from accessing or posting news content on either platform.
The move, which the social media giant announced in a blog post on Thursday, comes in reaction to the looming passage into law of Bill C-18, the Online News Act.
Facebook has said it will be forced to block news content from its platforms in Canada if the bill becomes law, something that could happen as soon as this month as the bill is currently being considered in the Senate.
Among other stipulations, the bill would require tech giants to pay Canadian media companies for linking to or otherwise repurposing their content online.
“As we prepare to comply with the legislation, we are announcing today that we will begin tests on both platforms that will limit some users and publishers from viewing or sharing some news content in Canada,” Meta said.
- Are you a Facebook or Instagram user? Do you use those platforms to share the news? We want to speak to you as part of a story. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Between one and five per cent of the 24 million Canadians who use Facebook or Instagram will be included in the test, which is set to start soon.
Different content may be blocked for different users on different platforms, said Rachel Curran, the head of public policy for Meta Canada.
“It won’t be a uniform experience, necessarily,” she said. “Some news links won’t be shareable on Facebook, but it might not be that experience on Instagram. It will be a different experience on different surfaces.”
“Throughout the testing period, which will run for several weeks, a small percentage of people in Canada who are enrolled in testing will be notified if they attempt to share news content.”
The test means that a user would not see links to articles or videos from news publishers anywhere in their feed. A user would also be blocked from sharing such content to other people.
News publishers will be able to post news links and content, but some of it will not be viewable in Canada.
Users who will be included in the test will be selected randomly, and will only be made aware that they’re included if they attempt to share news, at which point they will see a notification that they are unable to.
The number of news publishers who will have their content included in the test will not be public and is also randomized, but could include international publishers that operate in Canada. The publishers will be notified if they have been included in the test, Meta says.
News industry decries move
Paul Deegan, the head of News Media Canada, called Meta’s move a “kick in the shins” to Canadians at a time when the value and need for credible information has never been greater.
“Meta’s decision to ‘unfriend’ Canada by denying access to trusted sources of news for some of their users, as wildfires burn and when public safety is at stake is irresponsible and tone deaf,” Deegan told CBC News in an email.
“This hard-nose lobbying tactic is more evidence of the power imbalance that exists between dominant platforms and publishers, which is why parliamentarians need to pass the Online News Act before their summer recess.”
Meta’s move comes on the heels of a similar move by Google earlier this year, when it blocked news results for more than a million Canadians, also in opposition to the bill.
Meta says Bill C-18 is “fundamentally flawed legislation that ignores the realities of how our platforms work, the preferences of the people who use them, and the value we provide news publishers.”
Curran told senators pondering the bill in a committee last month that the company objects to being asked to compensate news publishers for their content, when by their calculation they have given news publishers more than 1.9 million clicks in Canada in the past year, “and free marketing worth more than $230 million in estimated value.”
“We will be forced to compensate news publishers for material that they post to drive traffic and drive clicks back to their page and websites where they can then monetize those views and eyeballs either through a paywall or they can place ads against the views that show up on their web page,” she said. “We are being asked to compensate them for an activity that actually benefits them from a monetary perspective.”
Government calls move ‘disappointing’
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez called Meta’s move “disappointing” and said Canadians will not be intimidated by these tactics.
Legacy media and broadcasters have praised the bill, which promises to “enhance fairness” in the digital news marketplace and help bring in more money for shrinking newsrooms. Tech giants including Meta and Google have been blamed in the past for disrupting and dominating the advertising industry, eclipsing smaller, traditional players.
Meta, which is based in Menlo Park, Calif., has taken similar steps in the past. In 2021, it briefly blocked news from its platform in Australia after the country passed legislation that would compel tech companies to pay publishers for using their news stories. It later struck deals with Australian publishers.
Meta also reached a deal with U.K. publishers that year, after similar discussions.
Accountable Tech, a U.S.-based advocacy group pushing for more regulation of technology companies in that country, says the news blackouts in various countries show the lengths that big tech companies will go to in order to sway governments and maintain their profits.
“What we witnessed unfold in Australia, and now in Canada, is Big Tech’s willingness to cripple democracy by withholding news content to a population — chosen at random — as a bargaining chip to stop legislation,” the group’s executive director Nicole Gill said.
“It’s clear that Meta has no interest in acting in good faith or improving the lives of its users and the communities they operate in. There is simply no reason for the U.S. to delay any action on reining them in.”
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