Former employment minister Pierre Poilievre is urging the Liberal government to include a flyer from Telus promoting cheap Internet service this July as part of Ottawa's annual letter to families about government benefits.
But after hearing the pitch directly from Telus, the federal government says it isn't convinced.
The behind-the-scenes push is taking place amid a growing debate over whether the federal government should play a role in ensuring poor families have Internet access. Canada's federal broadcasting regulator is currently weighing that very question after a series of public hearings on the future of broadband.
Mr. Poilievre argues the Telus pitch is a free enterprise solution to an important social problem. However, critics dismiss the plan as a "half-baked" effort by Telus to avoid new and costly regulations.
The Conservative MP has written to the Liberal government, asking cabinet to endorse a proposal that is being promoted by Telus to provide high-speed Internet for $10 a month for low-income families with children.
Mr. Poilevre said Telus first pitched the idea to him privately last year when the Conservatives were still in government and he was in cabinet, but the proposal came too close to the 2016 election for it to receive any further review. Mr. Poilievre's letter suggests the public service had some concerns.
"Officials may warn you that using the child care mail-out to publicize such initiatives would set a precedent. We certainly hope so," Mr. Poilievre wrote to Jean-Yves Duclos, the Minister for Families, Children and Social Development, who leads the renamed department that was previously Mr. Poilievre's responsibility.
Rogers, a competitor of Telus, already provides Internet service for $9.99 a month in some areas for low-income Canadians who are tenants of social housing, which is a provincial jurisdiction. Telus is advocating for the Canada Revenue Agency to use tax records as a national way to identify low-income Canadians who would qualify for the offer and receive a promotional flyer.
Telus representatives have had discussions this year with officials from several federal departments to discuss their proposal. The company's national director of community affairs, Shannon Gorman, told The Globe and Mail that Ottawa has not yet told the company whether the government will support the idea. She praised Mr. Poilievre for being a "huge champion" of the proposal.
However officials with the CRA and Innovation, Science and Economic Development made clear that Ottawa won't be cooperating with Telus's plan.
"The Canada Revenue Agency has a responsibility to protect taxpayer information and cannot provide it to Telus to facilitate access to their low cost Internet offering," said CRA spokesperson Jelica Zdero. "As a trusted government source, [the CRA] cannot be seen to endorse or promote the services of a private sector company."
In an interview, Mr. Poilievre said Internet access is crucial for young students who are attempting to complete homework assignments.
"It's a low-cost, free enterprise solution to a social problem, which is that some kids don't have access to Internet and that makes their academic life extremely difficult today," he said.
Telus discussed the idea publicly last month when company officials testified before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which recently held hearings on the reliability and affordability of broadband Internet in Canada.
John Lawford, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which also testified on the issue, said he believes Telus is floating the idea in an effort to avoid potential regulations that would force telecom companies to offer more affordable Internet access to low-income Canadians.
The PIAC is part of a group called the Affordable Access Coalition, which is urging the CRTC to introduce regulations that would force telecom companies to impose a surcharge on customers, to pay for rebates targeted at low-income Canadians.
Mr. Lawford described the Telus plan as "half-baked" and not something the Government of Canada should be promoting through an official mailout.
"Why should the government support a not functional, only alleged program from Telus? Which other charities get federal government mailouts to promote their cause? That's a private response to a public problem, and I think it's a private response to a public problem in order to avoid public regulation," he said.
However, McGill political science professor Richard Schultz, who appeared before the CRTC as a consultant for Telus, testified that any telecom subsidy should come from general revenues as a government program, rather than by forcing telecom companies to raise and distribute the money.
"They're proposing what I would regard as an unprecedented adventure for the commission into social policy engineering," he said.