Ethics commissioner Mario Dion testifies at a House of Commons finance committee meeting on Tuesday, November 24, 2020.
Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart told the finance committee that the government has the right to withhold certain information from MPs whether they like it or not.
OTTAWA — Federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion says he’s received thousands of pages of wholly unredacted government documents related to the WE Charity scandal as he investigates the matter for conflicts of interest.
Dion made his remarks on Tuesday to the House of Commons finance committee, which has been trying to get access to a similar trove of unredacted WE documents. But the committee also heard from Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart, who told them the government has the right to withhold certain information from MPs whether they like it or not.
The two officials testified on issues around redactions and the WE documents, a subject that has effectively paralyzed the committee since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament last summer.
The WE scandal began last June when the government announced a controversial and now-defunct deal to have WE Charity administer a student volunteer grant program. Neither Trudeau nor then-Finance Minister Bill Morneau recused themselves from the decision, despite family financial ties to WE that later came to light.
Dion is investigating whether any conflict-of-interest or ethics rules were violated in the decision to have WE Charity administer the grant. As part of that investigation, Dion said he has received “thousands and thousands of pages of documents” related the affair, with no redactions.
That’s in contrast to the finance committee, which received more than 5,000 pages in August — but with a substantial amount of that information redacted by public servants, despite the committee’s order that the redactions be done by the independent House of Commons law clerk.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre asked Dion whether they had both received the same documents.
“We didn’t try to compare what we received with what the committee had received so I’m in no position to compare, but we seem to have received slightly more pages,” Dion said.
Poilievre asked Dion to compare the two document troves, suspecting that the government may have held back some documents from the committee. Dion, however, said that might be too taxing on his staff and could delay his ability to get the investigation done.
“Maybe we asked for a much wider set of documents, that could explain the discrepancy,” Dion said.
However, Dion declined to get into more detail about what he’s received, saying that he’s bound by confidentiality rules during an investigation and MPs would have to just wait until they see his report.
“I can not discuss the information I receive until I publish my report,” Dion said, speaking in French. “If I determine it was relevant to the investigation, then I will include it in my report and can discuss it.”
Dion also said he couldn’t say whether any of the redactions applied to the documents provided to the committee were inappropriate.
Opposition MPs have been trying for months to have the unredacted documents handed over to the House of Commons law clerk. The Liberals have resisted this effort, filibustering committee proceedings to prevent the opposition from
passing a motion on the matter.
Finally, last week, the Liberals announced they would agree to hand over the documents minus redactions related to cabinet confidences and irrelevant matters.
Shugart, who as privy council clerk is the top civil servant in the federal government, told the committee that he’s confident the redactions were made on a non-partisan, professional basis by public servants, and said that less than one per cent of the information was redacted on the basis of cabinet confidence.
“The executive does have the prerogative to withhold cabinet confidences, even when the legislature asks for it,” Shugart said. “This is a point of tension between the two branches of government, and it is not always convenient. But it is a part of our constitutional structure and indeed it has been affirmed by the courts, as recently as this summer by the Supreme Court of Canada.”
Shugart said the redactions are done by experienced bureaucrats. “They take the documents, they read them completely, it’s a large task as you can imagine,” he said in French. “But in every case, we ask ourselves if the redaction is legitimate or not.”
Even so, NDP MP Peter Julian protested that there appeared to be far more redactions than what was necessary to protect cabinet confidences. “We have about 1,500 pages substantially or completely redacted,” Julian said.
Shugart agreed to provide the committee with more information about the redactions applied by public servants, noting that the vast majority were for other reasons than cabinet confidences such as commercially sensitive information or solicitor-client privilege.
But he defended the executive branch’s privilege of withholding this information, regardless if a legislative committee requests it.
“I’m afraid that it is a fact that if the executive branch were to give all of the documents of cabinet confidence or commercial sensitivity or solicitor-client privilege or national security to the law clerk, that it would be in a sense waiving that (executive) privilege because the law clerk is a servant of the legislature, not of the executive,” he said.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020