Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is dialling back the blame he once placed on his department’s officials for a misleading citizenship ceremony broadcast on the Sun News Network last fall.
Mr. Kenney had criticized civil servants when it was revealed six bureaucrats reaffirmed their oath of citizenship alongside three or four bona fide new Canadians during a televised ceremony last October.
But he was striking a decidedly different tone Tuesday after The Canadian Press published the bureaucrats’ version of events – that the network was actively involved in the decision to use civil servants as stand-ins.
During the Sun News broadcast, the hosts referred to the group as new Canadians that had “finally” received their citizenship.
Last February, when The Canadian Press first reported on the ceremony, Mr. Kenney placed the blame squarely on his bureaucrats, saying they had “handled the situation inappropriately.”
His staff also went out on Twitter and in various media outlets saying neither Sun News nor the minister’s office knew about the stand-in bureaucrats – even apologizing on air to the network.
The network had said its viewers were “deceived” by a bureaucrat.
But in a series of e-mails obtained by The Canadian Press, senior government officials insisted that the Sun News network was actively involved in the decision to use bureaucrats in place of actual new Canadians.
The opposition demanded Tuesday that Mr. Kenney apologize to public servants.
“It now turns out that the minister’s line that bureaucrats deceived the network was not true, and that they knew all along that these were not real new citizens,” Liberal Whip Judy Foote said. “Why did the minister deceive Canadians and try to make public servants take the blame for this fiasco?”
Mr. Kenney’s response was markedly different than the one he took four months earlier.
“At every citizenship ceremony Canadians are invited to reaffirm, including public servants,” he said. “In this case, public servants could not get enough new Canadians to fill the studio, so some of them reaffirmed their citizenship, which was perfectly normal and legitimate.”
The Immigration Minister made no mention of the Sun News Network.
After The Canadian Press began asking questions last February about how the Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) employees were passed off as new Canadians, the department assembled background facts.
An email that circulated among officials laid out what happened.
“Just to clarify, (name or names withheld) Sun TV did know about CIC employees filling in because some of the citizens who said they would come to reaffirm did not show up,” says a bureaucrat, his or her name withheld because the message was sent by BlackBerry PIN.
“It was a last-minute decision that was made just before air time by Comms (communications) and (Sun News name withheld) to roll with when the citizens didn’t show.
“Also it seemed that the hosts of the show were not well briefed because they kept saying these were new citizens taking the oath that day.”
An hour earlier, under the subject line “What we will say,” a political staffer in Mr. Kenney’s office wrote: “We didn’t know about this. Sun TV didn’t know about this.”
The response given to The Canadian Press that afternoon followed that line.
“The civil servants made some decisions without informing us or Sun News Network,” Kenney spokeswoman Candice Malcolm said.
“Their decisions were well intentioned, however, we wish they had made different ones. We will make sure this does not happen again.”
The following morning, after the story was published, Mr. Kenney’s office continued to tell the media and post on Twitter that the Sun did not know about the presence of bureaucrats in the ceremony.
“CIC servants did not tell Sun that some of the people at ceremony were CIC staff. They did not tell us either. We wish they had,” Kasra Nejatian, Mr. Kenney’s director of strategic planning, said on Twitter.
Ms. Malcolm went on the Sun News Network that morning to apologize to the network.
“The civil servants in our office were organizing this event, and I guess the morning of, they ran into a little bit of a problem, and instead of telling our office and telling Sun, they decided to send their own civil servants to fill in on the ceremony,” Ms. Malcolm responded.
Mr. Kenney also placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of bureaucrats during question period the day the story came out.
Inside the department, a formal media response to the story was being constructed throughout the day – ultimately receiving the sanction of the deputy minister.
One of the approved points underlined that not only was the network aware of the presence of the civil servants, but they were given the choice to use them.
“Sun Media was informed that only three new citizens showed up for the reaffirmation ceremony. As anyone can reaffirm their citizenship, Sun Media was given the choice of also having CIC staff in the shot to reaffirm their citizenship,” the statement said.
“They chose to have more people in the shot than less. It was our honest understanding that Sun TV recognized that these additional people were CIC employees.”
But by the end of the day, departmental officials were informed that their media responses would not be used publicly.
“Nevermind – thought we had greenlight but MO (minister’s office) has indicated they will be the only ones speaking on this issue,” wrote Bridget Nardi, a senior communications adviser.
“We tried. I’m sorry. This is very disappointing.”
Alexis Pavlich, Mr. Kenney’s new spokeswoman, said the minister’s office was made aware of the department’s position some time after the morning apology on the Sun network the day the story came out.
“Since we had no proof that Sun had been told, and since our political office had been kept in the dark about the whole matter, we did not feel we could say at the time that Sun was aware of the arrangement,” Ms. Pavlich said in an email Monday.
“Like most journalists, we try to have more than one source for any fact we rely on.”
The day the original Canadian Press story was published, the QMI news service – sister organization to Sun TV – reported that producer Dayna Gourley had been the department’s contact for the ceremony. There was no reference to her knowledge of the presence of the bureaucrats at the ceremony.
Ms. Gourley, who left the Sun three weeks after the ceremony to work at the CBC, has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Luc Lavoie, a spokesman for Sun News, told QMI in February, “It looks like Minister Kenney and our viewers were deceived by a well-meaning bureaucrat who made a poor decision.”
When asked Monday about whether anyone at the Sun was told beforehand about the use of bureaucrats, Mr. Lavoie said in an email to The Canadian Press: “Sun News has reviewed this incident thoroughly. We consider this matter closed and have no further comments.”
Alex Pierson, one of the co-hosts of the ceremony, said in February that she and colleague Pat Bolland were completely unaware of the presence of bureaucrats.
Ms. Pavlich from Mr. Kenney’s office said: “We had and still have every reason to believe that the Sun TV hosts did not know about this arrangement.
“Our apology was to them. Our apology stands,” she said.
The documents released to The Canadian Press make clear that the way the minister’s office handled the fallout from the story was distressing to civil servants.
Mr. Kenney’s office had ordered the department to organize the ceremony at the Sun with a few week’s notice, after noting that the CBC was televising a full-fledged ceremony during citizenship week – one that had been planned months in advance.
Civil servants tried to persuade Mr. Kenney’s people that the Sun should simply send a camera to one of the many citizenship ceremonies taking place around Toronto, but they were told to proceed by organizing the less onerous reaffirmation ceremony.
Others complained at the time about the vast amount of departmental resources that were being expended calling people who had recently become Canadians, asking them if they’d attend another ceremony.
“We went back number of time (sic) this was going to be very difficult. (Minister’s office) kept saying it had to happen,” wrote one bureaucrat in an email after the story had come out.
Another wrote to the minister’s office and others in the department that it was not fair to accuse a Toronto-area colleague of deceiving the public.
“For the (employee) at the centre of this, our raising deception will be devastating, given her track record of pulling out all stops to make (ministerial) events the best possible,” the bureaucrat wrote.
“If we need to approach and tell her judgment should have been different, that is fine, but not deception when she told her Sun contact that (employees) were there with clients.”