A member of Atlantic Canada's wealthy McCain family logged a March, 2016, meeting with Trudeau cabinet minister Scott Brison on the federal lobbyist registry, but Michael McCain says this was purely a social get-together and the two didn't discuss business.
Mr. Brison's financial and personal dealings with two prominent Atlantic Canadian families have come under fire from political rivals because the Treasury Board President has not set up a conflict-of-interest screen regarding investments he's made with Sobey and McCain family members.
This is in contrast with fellow cabinet member Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, who handed responsibility to his chief of staff to screen him from any dealings with New Brunswick's wealthy Irving family.
Mr. LeBlanc never had any financial investments with the Irving family but said his friendship with James D. Irving raised a potential conflict of interest. Mr. Irving is part of the Irving family conglomerate that has interests in numerous industrial sectors, including shipbuilding, oil refineries and lumber.
Mr. Brison, however, went into business with McCain and Sobey family members. In 2012, while an opposition MP, he was appointed chair of a private equity firm, SeaFort Capital, a joint venture between the McCains and Sobeys.
When he was sworn into the Trudeau cabinet last year, Mr. Brison's spouse, Maxime St-Pierre, replaced his husband on the board of SeaFort. SeaFort's investments include a major crane and lift services business, a construction-equipment rental business, an oil-patch services tubing company, whose specialties include the oil sands, and a long-haul transport firm.
Defending this SeaFort arrangement on Wednesday, Mr. Brison said neither the McCain nor Sobey families had sought things from him as a minister. "I have never been lobbied by any members of those families on any issue affecting their families. These are long-term friends."
He later called The Globe and Mail to say that he had a meeting with Michael McCain in Ottawa but it was not a business event. Mr. McCain's brother, Scott, is on the board of SeaFort.
Mr. McCain, the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, also took it upon himself to write The Globe to explain the March, 2016, meeting, which is recorded in a communications report on the federal lobbyist registry.
"Scott Brison and I have a long-standing personal and family friendship," Mr. McCain said in an e-mail.
"Last March, while in Ottawa, I invited Scott and his spouse, Max, for a social dinner as we almost always do when in the same city. Unfortunately, Max had to drop out at the last second because he couldn't find a babysitter."
He said the dinner was entirely personal. "As usual, our conversation ranged from our families, friends [to] world affairs. No lobbying activity took place."
Answering questions in the Commons Thursday, Mr. Brison said the federal ethics commissioner's office did not deem it necessary for him to set up a conflict-of-interest screen.
"I have always worked with and been open with the commissioner's office. As a public officeholder, my holdings are publicly disclosed. They are in a blind trust, and I do not discuss that with my partner, in the same way that as a cabinet minister I do not discuss cabinet business with my partner."
NDP MP Charlie Angus said the ethics commissioner's office appears more concerned about whether a "snow globe is given to a staffer or a few passes are given to an MP to attend a game" and less concerned with the bigger "much more complicated issues of conflict of interest where big decisions can be made."
Mr. Angus said Justin Trudeau promised a higher standard for his ministers, pointing to the mandate letters he wrote to each member of cabinet. "It's not just whether we can prove actual conflict of interest, [Mr. Brison] has to hold a higher standard, which means appearances of conflict of interest.
"There has to be some kind of ethical barrier and the fact that his spouse is involved on the board with these financial interests puts him in a very clear conflict of interest."