OTTAWA — Canada's foreign interference watchdog David Johnston was already scheduled to testify before opposition MPs demanded his appearance in a letter this week, a parliamentary committee chair said Thursday.
Liberal MP Bardish Chagger said at a hearing that the House of Commons procedure committee invited Johnston to appear two months ago, and he is already scheduled to appear in less than two weeks.
Opposition members of the committee wrote a letter this week demanding Johnston's testimony after his first report on alleged foreign meddling was published Tuesday.
The Conservative, NDP and Bloc Québécois MPs said they want the former governor general to explain why he decided against recommending a public inquiry on foreign interference.
Liberal MPs accused Conservatives of being irresponsible by implying that there was any reluctance on Johnston's part to talk to the committee.
"There is no lengths the opposition will not go to tarnish an individual's reputation ... who, to me, does not deserve it in any way," said Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull.
"They don't like the conclusions in the report, so they're trying to create the misconception that he's not forthcoming or willing to come to our committee, which is the opposite of the truth."
Conservatives have also raised concerns that Johnston is too close to the Liberals, saying the prime minister has previously described him as a "family friend" and he became a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau foundation after stepping down as governor general. Johnston has pushed back against the conflict-of-interest allegations.
Chagger said Johnston agreed to testify on June 6, including about the contents of his report.
Conservative MP Michael Barrett said opposition MPs were unaware that Johnston had been scheduled to appear on that date until the chair announced it at Thursday's meeting.
During a meeting on Thursday that lasted for more than three hours, Conservatives pushed to have Johnston appear on an earlier date over fears that Trudeau could prorogue Parliament to avoid further scrutiny on foreign interference.
But MPs instead settled on asking him to appear for three hours, instead of two hours, and to require that he appear on any date as long as it's by June 6.
NDP MP Rachel Blaney told the committee that she's not content with Johnston's report, as her party continues to push for a public inquiry.
"For me, the focus has always been how serious this is and how important it is for Canadians to trust their institutions," Blaney said.
"It's disappointing that we're here, and really outlines the reality that Canadians need to see a process that is transparent, clear and they can have trust in. This process is not feeling (like) that."
Johnston said that a formal public inquiry would not work to investigate issues of alleged foreign interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections because much of the classified information he has reviewed would need to remain secret.
He said in his report that making that information public would run the risk of breaching the trust of Canada's security allies and endangering intelligence sources.
Opposition parties have continued calling for a public inquiry in the wake of that report, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he is abiding by Johnston's recommendation not to hold one.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2023.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press