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Dominic Barton was global managing partner of McKinsey & Co. from 2009 to 2018, a period that overlapped with several high-profile controversies, including the New York-based consulting company’s advisory work for Purdue Pharma on ways to bolster sales of OxyContin.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Dominic Barton, the former head of global consulting giant McKinsey & Co., told MPs he had nothing to do with the rise in government contracts awarded to his former company in recent years, and rejected opposition party suggestions that he’s a close friend of the Prime Minister.

He was challenged Wednesday by Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, who presented an e-mail showing McKinsey Canada touted a senior partner’s role in an economic advisory board for the federal government when seeking a meeting to pitch Ottawa on its capabilities.

The economic growth council, which offered Ottawa advice on how to boost Canada’s long-term prosperity, was chaired by Mr. Barton in 2016 and 2017 while he led McKinsey.

Mr. Barton provided two hours of in-person testimony late Wednesday afternoon before the House of Commons government operations committee, which is studying the growth in federal contract spending on advice provided by McKinsey.

Public accounts spending data show that while McKinsey received some contract work under the Conservatives, its value had declined to zero in the final years of that government. After the Liberals formed government in 2015, annual spending on McKinsey contracts climbed steadily, reaching a high of $32.5-million in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

The government provided an updated spending estimate in January, saying it has spent at least $116.8-million on McKinsey contracts since 2015.

During the meeting, Mr. Genuis raised a March, 2020, e-mail obtained under access-to-information law that shows a McKinsey Canada official citing Mr. Barton’s past advisory work – as well as related support provided by the company’s Canadian managing partner Andrew Pickersgill – as part of a request to arrange a briefing for government officials on the company’s capabilities.

Mr. Barton told MPs he had no knowledge of that exchange and suggested questions about Mr. Pickersgill’s interactions with the government should be put to current McKinsey Canada staff.

“I don’t know what he was doing on that side,” Mr. Barton replied.

It was a frequent response from him throughout the testimony.

During his appearance before MPs, he repeatedly highlighted the distinction between the policy advice he has provided as an individual to the federal government and the contract work that McKinsey provides, which he said is focused on program delivery and not policy recommendations.

He also deflected questions about potential conflicts of interest at McKinsey during his time as leader, saying he was not involved in individual files. He declined to discuss any specific contracts, saying he was not involved in contracting and many of them were awarded after he left the company.

“There is no relationship on that. I know it sounds like a good story, but there actually was not a linkage between what I was doing and what McKinsey’s doing,” he said.

He told MPs he is not partisan or a supporter of any Canadian political party. He pointed out that he also provided advice to Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s government, including former finance minister Jim Flaherty.

Opposition MPs repeatedly questioned Mr. Barton as to whether the rise in contract spending is connected in any way to his pro-bono work as an influential policy adviser to the Trudeau government during its first few years in office.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Mr. Barton served as both the head of McKinsey and the chair of a federal economic advisory council to then-Liberal finance minister Bill Morneau. The council of expert advisers made a series of wide-ranging policy recommendations, many of which the government later adopted such as launching a Canada Infrastructure Bank and boosting annual targets for accepting immigrants.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also questioned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons earlier in the day as to why the government is working with a company that played a role in boosting opioid sales.

The Globe and Mail first reported last year on the spike in contracts to McKinsey under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Mr. Barton is a former board member of the Century Initiative, an organization that says Canada should aim to boost its population to 100 million by the year 2100, up from the current 39.4 million.

In an unusual move for a party leader, Yves-François Blanchet attended Wednesday’s committee meeting to question Mr. Barton directly. The Bloc Québécois Leader told reporters earlier in the day that he was particularly concerned by Mr. Barton’s support of the much higher immigration targets, which he said would mean overwhelming Quebec’s francophone population with English speakers.

“It’s so dangerous for the Quebec identity,” he told reporters, in reference to the 100-million population goal.

Mr. Blanchet asked Mr. Barton about the target in committee, asking what it would mean for the French language in Canada.

Mr. Barton replied that integration in both languages is important.

“We’re a bilingual country,” he said.

McKinsey was founded nearly a hundred years ago and is regularly relied upon by governments and corporations around the world for consulting advice. Its former consultants include many prominent business and political leaders such as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

Mr. Barton was global managing partner of McKinsey & Co. from 2009 to 2018, a period that overlapped with several high-profile controversies, including the New York-based consulting company’s advisory work for Purdue Pharma on ways to bolster sales of OxyContin.

That consulting work, of which Mr. Barton has said he was unaware, resulted in the company agreeing in 2021 to pay nearly US$600-million to settle investigations in dozens of U.S. states.

U.S. lawmakers have also investigated McKinsey for advising Purdue Pharma on how to boost sales of opioids at the same time the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) was relying on the company’s advice to ensure drug safety and protect American lives.

In 2017, McKinsey, under Mr. Barton’s leadership, apologized for “errors of judgment” in its business dealings with corruption-tainted firms in South Africa.

Mr. Genuis expressed frustration after asking Mr. Barton about several of McKinsey’s international controversies.

“However friendly you are, or aren’t, with the Prime Minister, one thing you do have in common with him, sir, is that you don’t seem to claim responsibility for anything that happens under you,” Mr. Genuis said.

Near the end of the meeting, Mr. Barton expressed frustration with the line of questioning.

“I’m finding this thing quite bewildering. I’m a Canadian that wanted to give back,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been trying to help and then there’s this scheme that I’m somehow a puppet [master] – and I find it sad. I find it frustrating. Because that’s not who I am and what I do. It makes me sad.”

The government operations committee began its study of McKinsey contracts this week. It is also studying outsourcing trends in general and the cost of the ArriveCan app. On Wednesday, the NDP proposed that the McKinsey study should be expanded to include other accounting firms such as Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Accenture, KPMG and Ernst & Young.

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