OTTAWA — A Quebec judge will head a public inquiry into allegations of foreign interference in Canada's affairs now that federal parties have agreed on a process to examine the thorny subject, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is ready to testify should he be asked to appear.
"Willingly and with very much enthusiasm," Trudeau told reporters at a news conference Friday morning in Singapore. "I think it's important for Canadians to know exactly everything this government has been doing in regards to foreign interference and to talk frankly about the challenges that we continue to face in our democracies around the world."
Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Marie-Josée Hogue will lead the 16-month probe starting Sept. 18, Democratic Institutions Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Thursday after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations.
"She will be able to undertake her important work with the support of all recognized parties in the House of Commons," LeBlanc told reporters on Parliament Hill.
LeBlanc, who is also public safety minister, said the inquiry will examine meddling by China, Russia and other foreign states and non-state actors.
"China is not the only country that seeks to interfere in an inappropriate way, and we wanted the commission and Justice Hogue to have the ability to follow the evidence, as she is brought up-to-date by our intelligence agencies," he said.
"Some of the interference may be by non-state actors that are affiliated with some of these regimes in various ways, so we wanted her to have the independent judgment to follow the evidence."
LeBlanc said Hogue will have access to any secure records she deems necessary to look at allegations of foreign interference in the last two federal elections. That includes cabinet confidences.
An interim report is due by the end of February and a final report by the end of December 2024.
It is uncertain whether Hogue's work will be done before the next federal election, as the Liberals could choose to ask the governor general to call one at any time, or be defeated and be forced to do so by opposition parties. However, the NDP has agreed to support Trudeau's minority government on key House of Commons votes until June 2025 in exchange for progress on New Democrat priorities.
In Singapore, Trudeau suggested the government would not need to wait until the entire process is over before acting on any lessons learned, pointing to the interim report due early next year.
"There will be time to listen to what is said there and bring those in," he said.
LeBlanc said it's up to Hogue to consult with legal experts of her own choosing as to whether parts of the inquiry will be held in public, and also who will be called to testify.
"She will decide what particular matters she will hear in camera, what will be public hearings," LeBlanc said, adding that all parties hope parts of the proceedings will be public early in the process. He also said the government intends to be "available and forthcoming" for Hogue.
Opposition parties have been demanding a public inquiry for months over allegations the Liberals failed to properly monitor and respond to attempted meddling by Beijing.
Officials say Canada maintained the overall integrity of the 2019 and 2021 elections. But opposition parties say they need clarity on the phenomenon of interference, and whether the government has adequately protected Canada's democracy.
LeBlanc said Hogue does not have "detailed experience" in national-security matters, arguing it's an asset for her to come to the issue with a fresh set of eyes.
He said the fluently bilingual judge, appointed to the bench by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, was a consensus choice among the parties, and her work involves rulings that often establish precedents in Canadian law.
"We believe Justice Hogue has all of the necessary experience, credentials and judgment to lead this important work," he said. "That view was shared by some of the country's most senior jurists with whom we've spoken."
Hogue's biography on the website of the Quebec Court of Appeal says her main areas of practice as a lawyer were corporate commercial litigation, civil litigation and professional liability, in addition to work in administrative and constitutional law.
Hogue said in a statement Thursday she looks forward to the role and will provide details on subsequent steps in due course. "It is vital that our electoral processes and democratic institutions be protected from foreign interference."
Bloc Québécois House leader Alain Therrien expressed confidence in the process, saying Thursday that Hogue is sufficiently independent to lead the probe.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the party wants to make sure people have trust in democratic institutions, "and that's why we've always believed that a public inquiry was the right way to go."
Speaking in Quebec City, Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer said his party would be "watching like hawks to make sure that Canadians get the real answers that they deserve about foreign interference in our democracy."
Hogue has a "huge and nearly impossible task ahead of her," said Wesley Wark, a national security expert and senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
He cited the inquiry's tight timeline, a lack of clarity about exactly what to focus on, fuzziness concerning public hearings and a steep learning curve for Hogue in the realm of security intelligence.
"It's going to be difficult for her to know what rocks to turn over, what issues to really pursue, what does the government have covered well, what are the points of vulnerability?" Wark said.
Defence Minister Bill Blair, attending an event in Halifax, said he hopes Hogue's findings can help Ottawa take steps to protect not just the democratic process but also intellectual property being sought by foreign states.
In May, the government confirmed a media report that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had in 2021 detected a plot by China to intimidate Conservative MP Michael Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong. The Trudeau government expelled Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei after sustained uproar in Parliament.
China's embassy in Ottawa has insisted that Beijing does not meddle in the affairs of other countries, saying in recent months that western countries have made "totally groundless" allegations that are driven by ideological bias.
Last spring the Liberals named former governor general David Johnston as a special rapporteur to examine foreign interference and promised to follow his recommendations.
Johnston advised against an inquiry, saying the fact that so many details could not be made public for reasons of national security would deny Canadians the answers they were seeking.
His report, issued in May, found that Trudeau's government did not knowingly or negligently fail to act on foreign attempts to interfere in the last two federal elections.
Johnston concluded, based on the intelligence he reviewed, that Trudeau had not been briefed about specific allegations — though he also found that serious reforms were needed to improve the way government handles sensitive intelligence.
Shortly after, opposition MPs passed a non-binding NDP motion calling on Johnston to step down over perceptions of bias toward the Liberals.
Johnston was friends with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, went on ski trips with the Trudeau family when Justin was a child and had recent ties to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.
In June, Johnston resigned as rapporteur, citing the highly partisan atmosphere that had surrounded his work.
Asked to explain how he had come to decide that a public inquiry was now the right choice, Trudeau decried the "incredible toxicity" in how the opposition parties responded to Johnston. He said that is why he said getting all-party support for the terms of reference and choice of commissioner was key.
"Having secured those elements, we're now able to move forward," Trudeau said in Singapore.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2023.
— With files from Marlo Glass in Halifax, Stephanie Taylor in Quebec City and Mickey Djuric in Singapore.
Dylan Robertson and Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press