The costliest, most expansive federal assistance program in Canadian history is shrouded in secrecy more than a year after its rollout – and has been plunged even deeper into the shadows after Ottawa said it ceased publishing a list of recipients.
The government has already approved $77.3-billion in payments through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, a program meant to support employees at companies experiencing pandemic-related revenue drops. But the extraordinary lack of transparency around the subsidy has stymied experts, stifled media efforts to hold the government and receiving companies accountable, and kept shareholders and economists in the dark about the program’s efficacy.
Until late December, the only data available on the program were aggregate numbers, updated weekly. When Ottawa finally rolled out its registry of companies receiving CEWS, the service listed only a single data point for each one: the company’s name.
Even those meagre disclosures have been pared back, however.
When the registry was unveiled, users could search for companies by name or business number, or manually page through the hundreds of thousands of recipients. But the government said the browsable list was taken down in late January; at the time, a Canada Revenue Agency spokesperson told The Globe and Mail that demand for the full list had been higher than expected, leading to technical issues. (The browsable page is not entirely gone, however – while the government removed links to the page, the list still be accessed if a user has the page’s direct web address.)
More than three months later, the list has yet to be fully restored, and the CRA has refused Globe requests for an updated list of recipients. In other words: A person wanting to find CEWS-receiving companies needs to know exactly what they’re searching for.
The Globe, however, archived its own copy of the full list of employers in January, and is now making that file available to the public. You can download the data at tgam.ca/cews-companies-january.
Access to information requests, often a viable route to force the disclosure of government records, can’t be used with the CEWS list either. The way the program was legislatively structured rules out such requests almost entirely.
Despite that roadblock, The Globe nonetheless filed a request for CEWS data, including company names, amounts paid out and pay periods. In response, the CRA claimed a 120-day extension to process the file, which is now due at the end of June.
Faced with a layer cake of administrative obstacles and draconian data measures, The Globe was forced to combine several disparate datasets to cobble together an understanding of public companies’ CEWS receipts. In the end, the analysis required data from four sources: S&P Global Market Intelligence, Statistics Canada, the January list of companies from the CRA and individual securities filings by hundreds of companies, which were hand-checked for references to the subsidy program.
For Yves Giroux, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer, the lack of any detailed data on CEWS recipients – such as the amounts each company received and the pay period each amount covered – is a blind spot that could be easily corrected if Ottawa chose to do so.
“I see lots of benefits in being more transparent about the wage subsidy,” Mr. Giroux said in an interview.
For one, it would keep companies accountable if they choose to raise their dividends or increase executive compensation. It could also increase access to the program, he says, as businesses look up their competitors and realize they’re not accessing the same funds as their counterparts. And it could help root out fraudulent applications, he adds.
But there are also drawbacks to publishing data that detailed, Mr. Giroux warns. The disclosure could have privacy implications. The information might also give one business a leg up over a similar enterprise in a very competitive market.
There’s already precedent for publishing business data on this scale. Last year, the United States Small Business Administration made public an enormous dataset of companies receiving Paycheck Protection Program loans, a program with a similar mission to CEWS.
The agency originally published just ranges for the amounts each company received, but in November a federal judge ordered the exact amounts be disclosed. The public interest “easily overcomes the far narrower privacy interest of borrowers who collectively received billions of taxpayer dollars in loans,” the judge wrote.
There are also examples closer to home. When it comes to other federal supports – say for federal innovation grants or the recently announced airline bailout worth several billion dollars – the government is more than happy to disclose exact amounts it’s spending, Mr. Giroux says.
The shroud of secrecy enveloping CEWS recipient data is due, in part, to an arcane section of Canada’s tax laws designed to protect tax filers’ privacy. “You’ve stumbled upon section 241 of the Income Tax Act,” Mr. Giroux says of the enabling legislation for CEWS.
Section 241 bars the federal government from publishing any form of “taxpayer information” – including the amounts received by subsidized businesses. This creates a perfect shield against access to information requests.
In an e-mailed statement, CRA spokesperson Sylvie Branch said any information other than corporation names could not be disclosed in accordance with section 241.
Curiously, when Ottawa wrote CEWS into the Income Tax Act, it added an escape hatch allowing the government to publish recipients’ names.
“It’s a sign that it wasn’t an oversight – it was intentional,” Mr. Giroux says. “The legislation was amended to allow the release of business names, but not the amount that organizations received. So they amended section 241, but not for full disclosure.”
“That could be fixed with a small legislative amendment,” he explains.
The information vacuum created by the government’s unwillingness to publish detailed CEWS records has led to a patchwork of disclosure, where companies decide for themselves whether wage subsidy information will be made public.
Companies with public reporting requirements, such as those listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, have sometimes noted their subsidy receipts in financial filings. But disclosures – if they happen at all – are inconsistent, and the funds have been allocated in myriad ways on corporate financial statements. In other cases, companies have been forced to disclose their federal funding through provincial lobbyist registries, such as the ones in British Columbia and Alberta.
In addition to publicly listed companies, however, hundreds of thousands of private companies are also collecting CEWS. Most have no regulatory obligation to disclose their subsidy receipts.
For academics such as Frances Woolley, economics professor at Carleton University, the detailed information locked away in the CRA’s CEWS database is of “tremendous value.”
The Liberal government has already publicly recognized the importance of making data available, Prof. Woolley says, citing Ottawa’s publishing of gender equality indicators in the recent federal budget.
“It’s interesting to see these competing imperatives,” she says, noting the potential for “gotchas” in disclosing data that may put companies (or the government itself) in hot water. “You want to make information available,” she wonders, “but do you want to make that information available?”
Ultimately, Prof. Woolley says, “this is all about political influence.” But accountability measures go beyond a particular program or government agency. “It’s a conversation about corporate responsibility, corporate accountability and corporate influence,” she says.
To ensure accountability, specificity is crucial, Prof. Woolley says. Without detailed data, it’s hard to turn an abstract concept – such as companies inappropriately taking advantage of federal relief funds – into an issue of practical concern for politicians and voters.
“That’s why naming particular firms is so powerful,” she says. “It does make things salient to people.”
Editor’s note: (May 11, 2021): Although the government told The Globe it had ceased publishing the CEWS registry’s full employer list, it is in fact still available if a user has a direct link to the page. This story has been updated to reflect that.
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