National Newswatch

OTTAWA, Ill. — The Conservatives said all parties agreed Friday on the scope for a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada.

The agreement appeared to break the impasse between the governing Liberals and the Conservatives about how to proceed with negotiations to establish a probe into efforts of foreign governments to interfere in Canada's elections and governance.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc was dispatched in June to work with the other parties on a path forward after foreign interference special rapporteur David Johnston resigned.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Johnston in March to dig into repeated claims, mainly from anonymous security sources, that China had attempted to influence the outcome of both the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Johnston's initial investigation led him to recommend against a public inquiry, saying too much of the evidence was classified and would not be able to be divulged publicly. That decision, however, angered opposition parties, which have been demanding an inquiry for months.

The Conservatives also accused Johnston of bias in favour of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Johnston denied any bias but eventually resigned, citing a "highly partisan" atmosphere around his investigation.

LeBlanc was not specifically assigned to negotiate the terms of an inquiry, but it has long been known that's the only path forward the other parties were willing to accept.

But the Liberals insisted all parties had to agree on the terms of reference and the name of the commissioner before announcing an inquiry while the Conservatives were adamant an inquiry had to be announced before they would agree to anything specific.

The Liberals wanted to avoid the intense criticism that met their decision to appoint Johnston by getting their opponents on side from the start.

In June, during the final week of the spring session of Parliament, both the Bloc Québécois and the NDP said they felt the negotiations were close to a conclusion.

Two days ago, Trudeau said the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois were in agreement and accused the Conservatives of blocking the consensus. Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer called that "unequivocally false."

Rather he said his party was working "in good faith and in a collaborative way" and that an agreement was close. It was the Liberals, he said, who "constantly pushed back on our proposals" and the Liberals who had not responded to emails and phone calls from the Conservatives seeking another discussions this week.

Following that public spat, LeBlanc's office set up a meeting with the other party House leaders, which took place Friday evening. After the meeting, Conservative party spokesman Sebastian Skamski said there was a deal about what a public inquiry would look at.

"After pressure from Conservatives, an agreement on the terms of reference for a public inquiry has been reached," Skamski said.

What's more, all parties have now shared their preferred names for who will lead the inquiry. To date, only the Bloc have gone public with their names, including former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, former Liberal justice minister and human rights expert Irwin Cotler, former ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques and Louise Otis, a former justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal and current president of the administrative tribunal of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

LeBlanc's spokeswomen would not confirm the details of the agreement or the Conservatives' claim an agreement is in place on the terms of reference. Communications director Kelly Ouimet said the meeting was "very productive" and work will continue next week.

"There are elements that we have agreed to," said Ouimet. "(There are) more details to be worked out and we will announce more in time."

There were differing opinions between the parties about how far back an inquiry should go, and whether to limit the scope just to the most recent allegations against the Chinese government or expand it to include any evidence other foreign governments have attempted to interfere in Canada's political system as well.

However, the Conservatives and Bloc MPs voted in favour of an NDP motion in late May calling for an inquiry to include a look at attempted interference not only by China but also Russia, Iran and India. The Liberals voted against that motion, which came nine days before Johnston stepped aside.

-with files from Stephanie Taylor

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023. 

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press
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