Politics

David Johnston no longer working with crisis communications firm Navigator

David Johnston, the federal government's special rapporteur on foreign interference, is no longer employing crisis communications firm Navigator after a media report suggested the firm also worked with an MP who was a subject of Johnston’s initial investigation.

Johnston hired Navigator shortly after his mandate as special rapporteur on foreign interference began

A man rubs his chin against a backdrop of ceiling lights.
David Johnston, independent special rapporteur on foreign interference, appears as a witness at the procedure and House affairs committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

David Johnston, the federal government's special rapporteur on foreign interference, is no longer employing crisis communications firm Navigator after a media report suggested the firm also worked with an MP who was a subject of Johnston's initial investigation.

CBC reported last week that Johnston had hired Navigator to provide "communications advice and support" when the former governor general began his probe of foreign interference in Canadian politics.

But as the Globe and Mail first reported on Thursday, Johnston has ended his relationship with the firm.

Citing an anonymous source, the Globe's story suggests that Independent MP Han Dong also hired Navigator for a short time. CBC also spoke to a source with knowledge of the matter who said Dong employed Navigator for a time. The source also said the firm's work for Dong and Johnston did not overlap in terms of timing.

Dong left the Liberal caucus in March following a series of reports by Global News that alleged the Toronto-area MP was a "witting" participant in a Beijing-backed foreign interference network.

Valérie Gervais, a spokesperson for Johnston, told CBC on Thursday that Johnston hadn't heard of a possible link between Dong and Navigator before his office was approached by the Globe and Mail.

"While Navigator has not played any role in deciding whom to interview, or assisting with his assessments of intelligence (relating to Mr. Dong or otherwise), Mr. Johnston has decided, under the circumstances, it would be best to end their engagement," Gervais said in a media statement.

WATCH | Johnston says he didn't reach out to Dong before releasing report

Johnston says he ‘didn’t reach out’ to MP Han Dong while investigating foreign interference

1 year ago
Duration 1:40
Special rapporteur David Johnston says he felt that he got the intelligence that permitted him to conclude that Han Dong ‘was not a witting party’ in an alleged foreign interference campaign. Dong stepped down as a member of the Liberal caucus in the wake of allegations that he advised a Chinese diplomat that Beijing should wait to free Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in February 2021.

In his first report released in May, Johnston disputed those reports linking Dong to foreign interference — including one that alleged he urged a Chinese diplomat in February 2021 to hold off on releasing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from China's custody.

Earlier this week, Johnston told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that he didn't interview or reach out to Dong before publishing his first report.

"We had a high degree of intelligence, both open and more particularly the classified information, and that permitted us to come to the conclusion that the allegations made about him were not founded," Johnston told host David Cochrane.

Dong has claimed the allegations in Global's reporting are false and is suing the news outlet for $15 million. Since Johnston's report was released, the MP also has been seeking to return to the Liberal caucus.

Conservative ethics critic Michael Barrett said Johnston's use of Navigator created "at a minimum the appearance of a conflict of interest."

"This is unacceptable when Canadians need to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that there is no conflict, because we're talking about our democratic institutions," Barrett told reporters outside the House of Commons. "This is too important to get wrong."

CBC has reached out to both Dong and Navigator for comment, but neither responded by publication time.

Along with Navigator, Johnston also hired the Ottawa-based communications company RKESTRA to provide "media relations support" related to the release of his first report. Gervais is the founder and CEO of the company.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Major

CBC Journalist

Darren Major is a senior writer for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He can be reached via email at darren.major@cbc.ca.

With files from Ashley Burke