A federal agency that has been unable to deliver on its mandate to oversee assisted human reproduction and is now slated for closure spent nearly $50,000 to relocate its president to Vancouver as it was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling that would strip away much of its responsibilities.
When Elinor Wilson was appointed to head Assisted Human Reproduction Canada (AHRC) in 2007, she refused to move from Ottawa to the agency headquarters that had been established in British Columbia. So the small staff has operated out of two offices – one in Ottawa and a lavish bureau on the West Coast that was never fully occupied and was traded last year for a smaller location.
But in October, 2011, as she was waiting for a Supreme Court ruling that divested her agency of many of its duties, Dr. Wilson had a change of heart and moved to Vancouver. That relocation cost $49,635, agency staff said Thursday.
Since that time, Dr. Wilson has spent more than $50,000 travelling back to Ottawa on behalf of the AHRC, whose activities are unclear given that it has never been provided with the regulations required to do its job. Repeated requests for interviews with Dr. Wilson this week were refused.
The agency, which was created by the former Liberal government and set up by the Harper Conservatives, was told in the March federal budget that its doors would be closed and any functions that are still being performed would be taken over by Health Canada.
There are still five staff members in the AHRC's Ottawa office and two in Vancouver. The operation is expected to wind down by the end of March, 2013.
The agency was supposed to enforce the Assisted Human Reproduction Act with the power to inspect fertility clinics, and issue, suspend and revoke their licences to operate. It was also expected to set rules for stem-cell research projects and make regulatory recommendations to the federal health minister.
But the Supreme Court in December, 2010, determined that provinces, and not the federal government, had the power to regulate and licence doctors and clinics offering fertility treatments – a ruling that wiped out a large part of the agency's reason for existence. And Health Canada has written just one of the roughly 30 regulations that were required to put the Assisted Human Reproduction Act in effect.
According to the budget documents, the demise of the AHRC will save the government $9.5-million a year.
But Françoise Baylis, a bioethics professor at Dalhousie University who resigned as a member of the agency's board in 2010, said the government "knows full well that that's not true" because, even though the agency has been allotted $10-million in federal funding every year, it has never managed to spend that amount.
Documents obtained under Access to Information by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin show the AHRC board approved a budget of $4,995,712 in 2011-12.
When Dr. Baylis and two other former board members who also resigned appeared before a Commons committee in November, 2010, they told politicians that requests for information about the agency's budget were constantly met with resistance.
Dr. Baylis said she could not even find out how much the she and her fellow board members were costing the agency. They asked the committee for an audit, which was performed in 2011 and the results were not good.
"During the period covered," said the audit, "the agency did not have effective controls in place over financial management and [financial controls]were not conducted in a manner compliant with the requirements contained in 11 of 13 policies, directives and corresponding legislation."
Dr. Baylis estimates that the government has spent nearly $30-million on AHRC since 2007 with little return on its investment.
The agency "didn't do the job and, if you try to be fair, it couldn't do the job," Dr. Baylis said.
But it still managed to spend about $5-million a year, she said.
"You have to ask the question, how did [it]manage to spend that much money?"