Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Thursday that he has chosen not to meet with former governor general David Johnston, who is investigating allegations that China has meddled in Canada's elections and other matters, while former party staffers called for political unity over foreign interference.
In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Johnston a special rapporteur to look into possible gaps in the federal government's response to foreign interference and recommend whether a public inquiry is needed.
Poilievre said Johnston is unable to do that work independently because he used to be a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, which is under scrutiny for accepting a donation reportedly linked to the Chinese government.
Poilievre told reporters Thursday that he sent a letter to Johnston asking how he can investigate the organization independently, but did not receive a response.
"He is Justin Trudeau's ski buddy, his cottage neighbour, his family friend and a member of the Trudeau Foundation, which got $140,000 from Beijing," Poilievre said.
"He has a fake job and he's unable to do it impartially. He needs to simply hand it over and allow an independent public inquiry into Beijing's interference."
His comments came hours before two former Conservative Party staffers — who worked under the party's previous leader Erin O'Toole — testified at the procedure and House affairs committee that is studying foreign interference.
Tasha Michaud, O'Toole's former chief of staff, said Canada's strength lies in its unity, while Walied Soliman, the Conservative party's campaign co-chair in 2021, urged the committee to "leave partisanship out of this."
Both had received briefings from national security officials during the last election, but felt there were some flaws in the work of the Security and Intelligence Threats To Elections Taskforce — a Liberal government initiative that aimed to monitor foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
"While the elections task force was well intentioned and set up in a manner that suggested it would be operated in a robust, information-sharing fashion, it ultimately left me with a feeling of ambivalence, lack of co-ordination and authority, and a complete failure to share relevant intelligence and provide meaningful advice," Michaud told the committee.
She said national security agencies should provide better guidance to political parties during elections, because she believed several volunteers and Conservative candidates were subjected to "inappropriate tactics and intimidation." Soliman agreed, though neither offered specific details.
Trudeau has said appointing Johnston was intended to take the partisan politics out of the debate, but his appointment remains a talking point for opposition leaders.
Poilievre said Canada needs to move on from the "special rapporteur distraction" and get on with a public inquiry to investigate allegations of Chinese foreign interference.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh did meet with Johnston alongside Vancouver-area MP Jenny Kwan, who had not yet been advised that she was a potential target of foreign interference.
"We asked Jenny to attend as she has been very active hearing from the Chinese community about their concerns regarding foreign interference," the NDP said in a statement.
"Much of the discussion on the issue publicly has focused on politicians and we wanted to ensure that the impact on everyday people was considered."
The party said it initiated the meeting request, and Singh used the opportunity to ask Johnston to recommend a public inquiry.
The NDP said Kwan will also have an in-person meeting with Canada's spy agency to discuss whether she could be a potential target for foreign interference.
Johnston, the author of "Trust: Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country," has served on the boards of more than a dozen public companies, and was named a member of the Trudeau Foundation in 2018. His relationship with the Trudeau family is well documented.
He told CTV in 2016 that his family's friendship with the Trudeaus went back decades and they used to ski together. He also said his wife became good friends with the Trudeau family when they all lived on the grounds of Rideau Hall.
Johnston was appointed governor general on the recommendation of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010.
In 2017, when his term ended, Trudeau called him a "family friend" during a speech in Parliament.
His mandate in the special rapporteur role includes looking at what Trudeau, his staff and his cabinet ministers knew about attempted foreign interference, and what they did about it. The government says he has access to classified documents to support that investigation.
He is expected to issue recommendations on whether a public inquiry is necessary by next week, but he has until the end of October to complete his review.