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International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 14, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)
International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Feb. 14, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters)

Bev Oda's admission fuels howls of secrecy against Harper government Add to ...

A Conservative cabinet minister risks being found in contempt of Parliament over accusations she lied to MPs and doctored a document to hide the fact that she was overruling her department.

‬International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda rose in the House of Commons Monday to admit that it was on her order that the word "not" was inserted in a memo drafted by senior public servants recommending she approve new funding for the church-backed aid group Kairos.

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The document, which was later made public, gives the impression that Ms. Oda and two public servants from the Canadian International Development Agency all signed off on the decision "not" to fund the organization. Kairos was seeking more than $7-million in funding over four years.

Critics say it's another example of the Harper government attempting to keep important information secret, contrary to past promises. In 2006, the Conservatives campaigned on a pledge to increase openness and transparency in government.

The Kairos case also carries similarities to the government's battle last year to cancel the long-form census, in which the head of Statistics Canada ultimately resigned after Industry Minister Tony Clement suggested the public servant supported the minister's decision.

Ms. Oda correctly stated Monday that it's within her right to overrule public servants, but what has the opposition up in arms is that she told MPs in December that she didn't know who put the "not" there.

"The 'not' was inserted at my direction," Ms. Oda said Monday in the House of Commons. "Given the way the document was formatted … this was the only way to reflect my decision."

Ms. Oda's comments were the first since last Thursday when House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken released an uncharacteristically scathing ruling on the situation involving the document.

"Any reasonable person confronted with what appears to have transpired would necessarily be extremely concerned, if not shocked, and might well begin to doubt the integrity of certain decision-making processes," said the Speaker. "In particular, the senior CIDA officials concerned must be deeply disturbed by the doctored document they have been made to appear to have signed."

The minister's latest comments left opposition MPs on the Foreign Affairs committee fuming that they had been lied to by the minister. The MPs noted that when the funding cut became public in 2009, the minister left the impression that the agency supported the decision.

In a Dec. 9 committee appearance, Ms. Oda said she didn't know who inserted the "not." She then responded defensively to repeated questions from the opposition.

"It's like we're on CSI or it's an investigative forensic thing, asking who put the 'not' in. I'd like to know what your issue is. What is your issue?" she responded in December to questions from Liberal MP John McKay.

Later Monday, Mr. McKay and other opposition MPs voted 6-4 to send a report to the Speaker of the House of Commons asking him to consider whether Ms. Oda breached the rules of Parliament.

"If it's not a resignation offence, I'm not sure what is," Mr. McKay said after the meeting.

The Speaker had said last week that he could not make a final ruling because the case was still before a committee.

There were strong suspicions at the time of the 2009 cut that the decision was politically motivated. Kairos was critical of Canadian mining practices overseas and raised concerns about the Alberta oil sands.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney initially told an Israeli audience that Kairos was cut off because the government didn't like its views on Israel, but Ms. Oda and other Tories insisted it was a routine decision.

Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai countered that the minister apologized and urged the foreign affairs committee to move on. He said ministers have every right not to follow advice offered by public servants. His intervention failed to persuade the opposition.

"The minister lied to this committee, misled this committee, and that's an affront to our privileges," said NDP MP Paul Dewar.

With a report from Steven Chase

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