What we know so far about the public inquiry into foreign interference

The federal government announced Wednesday that it has named Justice Marie-Josée Hogue to helm a public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada’s elections.

The announcement came after months of demands from opposition parties for such an inquiry.

Representatives of all recognized political parties met several times over the summer to discuss who should head up the inquiry and how it should be structured.

Here’s what we know so far about how the inquiry will proceed.

How did we get here?

Citing unnamed security sources and classified documents, a series of media reports earlier this year accused China of interfering in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

The Liberals have since faced a barrage of questions regarding what they knew about the interference and how government institutions handled intelligence.

While opposition parties called on the Liberals to launch a public inquiry, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instead appointed former governor general David Johnston as a special rapporteur on foreign interference.

Johnston had the power to recommend a public inquiry into foreign interference if he felt one was necessary. The Liberals committed to following through on such a recommendation.

David Johnston resigned as special rapporteur on foreign interference in June. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

While Johnston did conclude that foreign governments are attempting to influence Canadian politics, he ultimately recommended against an inquiry, arguing that much of the classified information he had reviewed would need to remain secret.

Johnston’s findings triggered outrage among the opposition parties. The NDP put forward a motion in the House of Commons calling for Johnston’s resignation. The motion passed with the support of the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois, which had questioned Johnston’s impartiality since he was first appointed. 

Johnston resigned the position in June, saying his role had become too muddled in political controversy for him to continue.

All parties agree the 2019 and 2021 federal election results were not compromised. But in the wake of Johnston’s probe, opposition MPs argued that a public inquiry into foreign interference would be the only way to maintain Canadians’ confidence in the electoral system.

Following Johnston’s resignation, the Liberals agreed to a public inquiry and House leaders from the main federal parties met over the summer to set the terms and timeline. They also discussed who should helm the inquiry.

Earlier this summer, the National Post reported that the Liberal government was having trouble finding a commissioner to oversee the inquiry.

How is this different from what Johnston was doing?

While Hogue will be examining many of the same issues that Johnston was, she will be heading a much more formal process.

Like Johnston, Hogue is being tasked with investigating interference by China, Russia, other foreign states and non-state actors in the 2019 and 2021 elections. She’ll also look at how intelligence flowed to decision-makers in the context of the past two elections.

The government gave Johnston clearance to review security documents and documents covered by cabinet confidence. Hogue will have access to similar documents.

When he released his first report, Johnston said he intended to hold public hearings over the summer. He resigned before those hearings took place.

Hogue’s inquiry will hold public hearings before an interim report is released. The Quebec judge will have the power to subpoena witnesses for those hearings, including the prime minister and members of his cabinet, and will decide if hearings should be kept out of the public eye due to national security concerns.

But it’s not clear how many of those hearings will be in public.

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Thursday that all parties agreed the hearings should at least begin in public “so that Canadians will understand why certain highly classified intelligence information has to be treated by law in a confidential manner.”

Hogue and her team can then decide when to move hearings behind closed doors.

WATCH | Foreign interference commissioner has deadlines

Foreign interference commissioner has deadlines but can ask to extend them

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc says all opposition leaders are ‘firmly’ in agreement with the deadlines for Justice Marie-Josee Hogue to submit her reports on foreign interference.

Hogue’s appointment will be less contentious than Johnston’s. The Conservatives, Johnston’s most vocal critics, said they approved of Hogue leading the inquiry.

“We arrived where we are today with a process that was more inclusive of opposition parties and I can tell you we do accept the nomination of Justice Hogue,” Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer told reporters Thursday.

NDP House Leader Peter Julian said his party wanted to ensure the person leading the inquiry was “free of political involvement.”

“We have now a judge in place that has the confidence of all recognized parties,” he said.

WATCH | Conservatives accept Hogue’s appointment

Conservatives ‘accept’ new foreign interference commissioner, says Scheer

Regina-Qu’Appelle MP Andrew Scheer says his party hopes to get ‘real answers’ on foreign interference with the appointment of Justice Marie-Josee Hogue to the role.

How much information will be made public?

When he released his first report, Johnston cautioned that a public inquiry wouldn’t be able to reveal much due to national security concerns.

Justice Hogue will be able to decide when a hearing should take place behind closed doors.

But her mandate allows her to consider alternatives to disclosing information revealed during closed-door hearings.

For example, Hogue could release a summary of the evidence heard in camera if she believes it wouldn’t harm national security interests or violate national security laws.

A female judge sits behind the bench
Justice Marie-Josée Hogue from the Quebec Court of Appeal has been tapped to lead the public inquiry into foreign election interference. (Université de Sherbrooke)

Former CSIS director Richard Fadden told CBC’s News Network that he hopes Hogue will be generous with what she releases to the public.

“She can protect national security while making a great deal of it public. You and I don’t need to know which particular spy did a certain thing at a certain time,” Fadden told host Hannah Thibedeau.

“I would just urge her to take as broad a view as she can.”

When is the inquiry expected to begin and finish?

It’s not clear when hearings will start but Hogue is set to officially begin her role as the inquiry’s commissioner on Sept. 18.

Hogue is required to deliver an interim report in February of 2024 and a final report by the end of next year.

Fadden cautioned that unless the government acts while the inquiry is underway, substantive changes probably won’t happen before the next election, which would be held in the fall of 2025 at the latest.

“There’s no way you can draft legislation a month or two before an election,” he said. “There’s no way you can substantively change policy a month or two before an election.”

WATCH | Former CSIS director on foreign interference inquiry

Transparency and security

Former CSIS director Richard Fadden talks with the CBC’s Hannah Thibedeau after Justice Marie-Josée Hogue was appointed to lead a foreign interference inquiry. Can she be transparent while still protecting national security?

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