In an internal letter, Parliament’s independent law clerk says the thousands of pages of government documents released to MPs on the WE Charity controversy were excessively redacted by government officials.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Aug. 18 that the documents would be released, while also announcing that he was proroguing Parliament until Sept. 23.
The House of Commons finance committee had requested the documents as part of its investigation into the government’s since-abandoned plan to outsource the management of a student volunteer program to WE Charity. The program had an initial announced budget of $912-million but the contribution agreement with the charity was for $543.5-million.
By choosing to prorogue immediately, rather than just before Parliament’s return, Mr. Trudeau’s decision shut down investigations by several committees into the WE Charity issue.
Philippe Dufresne, law clerk and parliamentary counsel for the House of Commons, wrote to finance committee clerk David Gagnon that same day to warn that the redactions did not respect the committee’s order.
“The departments made certain redactions to the documents on grounds that were not contemplated in the order of the committee,” Mr. Dufresne wrote in an Aug. 18 letter. “We note that the House’s and its committees’ power to order the production of records is absolute and unfettered as it constitutes a constitutional parliamentary privilege that supersedes statutory obligations, such as the exemptions found in the Access to Information Act.”
Mr. Dufresne’s letter was first reported by iPolitics. The Globe and Mail has also obtained a copy of the letter, which is not a public document.
The thousands of pages of highly redacted documents provide a window into the scramble inside government by cabinet ministers, their political staff and federal public servants in several government departments to hammer out the details of the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG) program and the role WE Charity would play as a third-party provider.
The committee’s all-party motion called for the release of all contracts, briefing notes, e-mails and memos related to the design and creation of the student volunteer program. It said that matters of national security and cabinet confidences can be exempt and that the law clerk would make further redactions to protect the privacy of individual citizens and public servants.
In light of the law clerk’s letter, NDP MP and finance critic Peter Julian wrote to the committee clerk asking him to order the release of the documents in line with the committee’s initial request, but that did not happen. The committee’s website notes that all activity ceased with prorogation. It will be up to the membership of the finance committee to decide on its agenda once Parliament resumes.
Mr. Julian told The Globe that the government’s redactions, followed by prorogation, are outrageous and demonstrate the government’s contempt for parliamentary committees. Mr. Julian said if the documents back up the government’s assertions that WE’s involvement was recommended by the public service, then they should freely release all of the records.
“It’s the cover-up that is often more scandalous than the scandal and I think the government is getting perilously close to a cover-up on this,” Mr. Julian said.
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said Mr. Trudeau’s immediate prorogation prevents MPs from pushing for information.
“He’s covering up all kinds of key facts that would be material to our investigation and hoping to bury it all under a massive bonanza of tens of billions of dollars of new spending in the fall. I think he also wants to force an early election before any of these facts become public,” he said in an interview.
Liberal MP Wayne Easter, who chaired the finance committee at the time of prorogation, said Wednesday that he would be looking into the issue further.
“It sounds to me like some departments might have gone too far,” Mr. Easter said. ”The will of the committee should have been respected fully and the documents should be released as fully as possible.”
Pierre-Alain Bujold, a spokesperson for the Privy Council Office, defended the government’s redactions.
“Every effort was made to release as much information as possible to the committee, and indeed cabinet confidences pertaining to the [CSSG] program were disclosed, in keeping with public disclosures made by members of the Queen’s Privy Council,” he said in an e-mail Wednesday.
“A limited amount of information was protected for reasons including cabinet confidentiality (when it was unrelated to the CSSG), personal information and IT security.”
Similar statements were provided by the Finance Department, Treasury Board and Employment and Social Development Canada.
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