It might seem like ancient history now, but the belated appointment of a Quebec judge on Wednesday to lead a public inquiry into foreign interference is a reminder that — for a few feverish months this spring — the question of possible tampering in the Canadian democratic process was all anyone in Ottawa wanted to talk about.
It's also a reminder that almost no one covered themselves in glory during those months.
"Our work together sends a clear signal to Canadians that democratic institutions are strong and are resilient," Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Thursday, noting that Justice Marie-Josée Hogue's appointment and her terms of reference had the full support of all recognized parties in the House of Commons.
Canadian democracy has been in desperate need of such a signal.
Hogue's appointment comes nearly three months after David Johnston — the former governor general chosen by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March to look into the questions raised by a series of intelligence leaks — decided he'd had enough.
It was Johnston's considered view that Parliament was — or should be — mature and serious enough to tackle the deeply important questions raised by this furor — questions that go to the very heart of this country's democracy and institutions. Parliament disagreed, very loudly.
Johnston argued that existing institutions — including the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency — could, along with his own contributions, bring clarity and accountability to a discussion dominated by sensational headlines and wild accusations. And it's possible that both bodies will still report back with something useful.
David Johnston presents his report on foreign interference in Ottawa on May 23, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
But Johnston ultimately was doomed by who he was (Johnston's family and the Trudeau family are at least acquainted) and what he was not (the opposition parties were unwilling to settle for anything less than a public inquiry).
After Johnston's resignation, the Liberal government was finally compelled to launch discussions with the opposition parties about an inquiry. Those negotiations apparently dragged on — perhaps in part because several individuals reportedly turned down the government's entreaties to lead such an investigation in the wake of Johnston's thrashing in the public square.
In hindsight, it's obvious the Liberals could have saved themselves, and the country, a great deal of time and trouble by launching an inquiry very soon after the first intelligence leaks and allegations appeared in media reports.
But while everyone waited for an inquiry to be launched, the headlines dried up and the opposition parties seemed only too happy to drop the issue. Maybe that was out of respect for the all-party discussions happening behind closed doors. Maybe it was because, as it turned out, voters were altogether more concerned with the cost of housing.
In the fading light of late summer, Hogue's appointment almost seems anticlimactic — and it is tempting to dismiss this spring's turmoil as a passing fad. But of course, it isn't.
How foreign interference tests our democracy
Foreign interference, either real or alleged, is ultimately a test of a political system's seriousness — a test not only of the system's ability to counter and resist meddling but of the capacity of political actors to deal with suspicions, fears, threats and allegations. And the early returns from this particular episode have not flattered Canada's political system.
Justice Hogue's terms of reference are expansive and the government has committed to giving her access to any documents she seeks. Her timeline is tight but it might be just enough to get at the questions raised by the series of media reports that caused such tumult this past spring.
"The terms of reference were deliberately written to give the inquiry and the commissioner the ability to follow the evidence," LeBlanc said Wednesday.
Justice Marie-Josée Hogue has a tight timeline for completing her work. (Université de Sherbrooke)
The questions to be answered are by now obvious. What do intelligence agencies know about attempts by foreign states to interfere in Canadian democracy? How well is that information distributed within the government? What have elected officials and senior civil servants known about any attempts to interfere? And given what they knew, did they do enough to respond?
There is a risk here for both the government and its accusers — that an inquiry will find the government was derelict in its duty or that the biggest allegations are lacking in substance.
But the immediate political consequences are still secondary to the need for accountability, clarity and seriousness. Hogue's broader remit is to resolve, one way or another, the suspicion and doubts that have been raised and stoked about Canada's political process. Even if Canadians are rather more concerned with paying their mortgages or rent, the forces of suspicion and doubt can prove corrosive over time.
Parliament may have decided, in its infinite wisdom, that it was incapable of seriously handling such important matters. But there is some small grace in the fact the parties were at least capable of agreeing, belatedly, to outsource the responsibility to Hogue.