OTTAWA — The Liberals have agreed to allow Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff to appear at a House of Commons committee next month to answer questions about foreign interference in Canadian elections, ending a two-week standoff by Liberal MPs.
Katie Telford will testify for two hours during the second week of April at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, where Liberals were engaged in a lengthy filibuster. A motion to call her finally passed on Tuesday morning.
But Trudeau still insists that the best way to get to the bottom of foreign interference allegations is through an investigation by the special rapporteur he named last week. Former governor general David Johnston will have until October to review any evidence he chooses, including classified documents.
"That’s where the answers are going to come," Trudeau said on Tuesday.
Amid sustained pressure from his political opponents, however, Trudeau has asked Johnston to declare by May 23 if he thinks a full public inquiry is needed.
The opposition parties have demanded an independent inquiry for weeks, as allegations about attempts by Beijing to influence the 2019 and 2021 elections swirled. Trudeau has said he will only call an inquiry if Johnston deems one to be necessary.
He accused the Conservatives of trying to turn the whole thing into a "partisan circus," and demanding that Telford show up to a committee knowing full well she wouldn't be able to answer questions about national security.
"The Conservatives are trying to gin up the toxicity and partisanship by making a political theatre out of it and by catching Ms. Telford or others in not being able to answer direct questions," Trudeau said.
Until Tuesday, the Liberals had attempted to keep Telford out of the witness chair, filibustering the House affairs committee for more than 21 hours across four meetings since March 7. Multiple Liberal MPs jammed up the meetings with lengthy speeches about the appropriateness of officials being called to testify, even questioning whether public inquiries cost too much, all in a bid to keep the motion to call Telford from getting to a vote.
The Liberals were forced to retreat Tuesday after the Conservatives introduced a similar motion in the broader House of Commons, which would have called Telford to testify at the ethics committee instead.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday that his party would vote for that motion unless the Liberals ended their filibuster.
"We are saying very clearly, if the Liberal government does not stop the obstruction … and if the Liberal government and Justin Trudeau doesn't permit his chief of staff to testify, then we will force them to do that," Singh said.
Singh had delivered that message to Trudeau himself on Monday. It was after their conversation that the NDP started to see movement on the Liberal position for the first time, according to a Singh aide who was granted anonymity in order to speak freely on the matter.
Minutes after Singh made his threat public on Tuesday morning, Trudeau's office issued a statement saying Telford would agree to go the House affairs committee. Then, on Tuesday afternoon, the Conservative motion to call her to ethics was defeated.
While the Liberals would still prefer to leave Telford out of the matter entirely, that committee is deemed to be slightly friendlier to them because it has a Liberal MP as chair. The ethics committee, on the other hand, is chaired by a Conservative MP.
Despite filibustering a committee for two weeks on an issue they say is too serious for partisan games, the Liberals insisted Tuesday that their focus has been on making Parliament work — not scoring political points.
When he was asked on Tuesday whether the filibuster was "making Parliament work," Liberal House Leader Mark Holland said: "Absolutely."
He added: "Our objective is to work with the opposition parties to provide them with the opportunity to ask the questions they want to ask."
Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who brought the initial motion to call Telford to testify, said Tuesday that the Liberals will be judged by their actions.
"They have to answer for why they wasted so much time blocking and obstructing of the work of the committee," he said.
"So, I'm glad at the end of the day, they have finally agreed to do what they should have agreed to all along, and that is to have Katie Telford testify. It's critical that she testify. She's the second most powerful person in this government."
Johnston's mandate, as laid out by Trudeau's office on Tuesday, is to assess both the extent and impact of foreign interference in Canada's elections. He is also being asked to review what the federal government has already done to try and combat the issue.
As opposition parties clamour for answers, Johnston is also being asked to look at what Trudeau, his staff and his cabinet ministers knew about the attempted interference, and what they did about it.
Meanwhile, Han Dong, the Liberal MP who is now at the centre of allegations of Chinese meddling in the 2019 election spoke to reporters outside the House of Commons, saying he has not heard from CSIS about the allegations.
A Global News report last month, citing unnamed security sources, named Dong as one of the candidates who was allegedly part of a "Chinese foreign interference network." The report said CSIS briefed senior aides in Trudeau's office about Dong's alleged involvement before the election.
Dong flatly denied accepting help from Beijing.
"I was not offered, I was not told, I was not informed, nor would I accept any help from a foreign country, whether during my nomination or during my election campaign," he said on Tuesday.
Dong said he has written to the director of CSIS about the allegations and hadnot yet heard back.
"I have not received any phone calls from RCMP, Elections Canada, CSIS," on the matter.
Dong also said he is not aware of any investigation by any of those agencies into either his nomination or election campaign.
The RCMP told a House committee last month it did not open any investigations into foreign meddling in either the 2019 or 2021 elections. Independent panels overseeing each of those votes did not find any attempted interference that put the integrity of the elections at risk.
When asked whether he had spoken with the Prime Minister's Office about the alleged briefing, Dong said he had not, but he had faith in his campaign team and they denied knowing about any alleged interference.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2023.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press