Skip to main content

Internal e-mails reveal a sense of frustration among the highest levels of the Prime Minister’s Office with the Public Health Agency of Canada, as political staff were caught off guard by some of the agency’s key announcements during the pandemic and questioned its decisions.

The rare look at exchanges between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s top political aides shows they felt blindsided at times by the agency’s decisions. They also questioned whether Public Health was properly consulting others on matters including personal protective equipment.

For instance, PMO issues adviser Sabrina Kim wrote to a colleague on April 20, stating, “PHAC has posted PPE guidance for essential workers … it is quite detailed … None of us were aware.”

Ms. Kim suggested the information should be taken offline.

“We can’t take down public health advice,” responded Samantha Khalil, the PMO’s deputy director of issues management. “Let’s work on dealing with it.”

Shannon Zimmerman, a senior adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, offered her assessment in an e-mail. She said the guidance was posted even though cabinet had yet to approve a plan for what PPE the federal government would be providing.

“I agree this can’t be taken down, but I’d think at the very least PHAC should have to consult some industry so ... industry knows what’s expected of them or PHAC can hear their challenges? No?”

“Obviously,” Ms. Khalil replied in an e-mail that copied five other PMO staff. “I have made it clear to health that it is unacceptable this has happened for a second time.”

The e-mails are part of the latest release of what will ultimately be tens of thousands of internal government documents that will be disclosed in response to a document production order approved by the House of Commons in October over the objections of Liberal MPs.

An earlier release of documents included an internal report by Public Health’s audit and evaluation office that highlighted a wide range of problems inside the organization.

That report, titled Lessons Learned, described an agency that lacked the in-house expertise to manage the escalating health crisis. It also reported that Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, would often receive information from the agency that was inaccurate or in the wrong format.

That report found the agency “did not have the breadth and depth of human resources required to support an emergency response of this never-seen-before magnitude, complexity or duration.”

The report was dated September, 2020. On Sept. 19, Public Health president Tina Namiesniowski announced she was resigning from the agency.

Another e-mail in the most recent release of documents, sent at 7:15 a.m. on Aug. 8, shows the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, forwarded an article to her PMO colleague Marci Surkes.

“Front page of globe. How will we respond to this?”

The story was The Globe and Mail’s latest report on the agency’s Global Public Health Intelligence Network, which had just started issuing alerts about disease outbreaks for the first time since May 24, 2019, when it had been effectively shut down.

The story noted the revival of the system came about two weeks after The Globe reported that it had effectively been shelved.

The intelligence network was created in the mid-1990s to gather information on outbreak threats and was credited for detecting crucial intelligence during several previous international outbreaks, including SARS and H1N1. The Globe reported that, starting in 2018, Ottawa began to shift GPHIN’s internal resources toward domestic projects that did not involve pandemic preparedness.

The PMO e-mails suggest confusion within the government about the oversight of GPHIN, and who was responsible for the decisions surrounding its curtailing.

“I’ve asked Rick [Theis] to dig in,” Ms. Surkes replied, in reference to another senior PMO colleague. “Neither of us had a heads up.”

Another e-mail from Ms. Surkes later that morning states: “it sounds like Sabina was also not aware; she’s getting briefed at 10 am and will update us.”

Sabina Saini is the chief of staff to Health Minister Patty Hajdu, the minister responsible for Public Health. An e-mail from Brian Clow, the PMO’s director of issues management, to Ms. Telford and other senior staff said that Ms. Saini would be speaking with the president of the agency and would report back.

It is unusual for the internal e-mails of political staff to be released publicly, as such records are normally exempt from release under the Access to Information Act. However this disclosure is separate from that act and is in response to an Oct. 26 motion approved by the House of Commons, ordering departments and ministers’ offices to produce all memos, e-mails and other records related to Canada’s COVID-19 response.

The government said it has provided more than 30,000 pages to Parliament, but only a small percentage of those records have been published to date as most have not yet been translated.

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.