Conservative Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais says Environment Minister Catherine McKenna‘s office tried to plant questions with friendly senators on the Senate’s environment committee to help get the government’s message across on its new environmental-assessment legislation.
During question period in the Senate Tuesday, Dagenais pulled out an email from a “high-placed official” in McKenna’s department sent in late January, about a week before the deputy ministers of environment, natural resources and transport, and the president of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, were to appear at the committee on to talk about Bill C-69.
The legislation overhauls Canada’s process for reviewing major energy projects for their environmental impact and has been a point of contention between the Liberal government on one side and the oil and gas industry and provincial governments on the other. It underwent more than 170 amendments in the House of Commons and faces a number of additional amendments in the Senate.
The email from a member of the interdepartmental team working on the legislation asks other members of the team to review a suggested list of questions with their officials and get the answers the officials would deliver if they could get a senator to ask the questions. It says the assistant deputy minister of the environment specifically wanted the officials who were to appear at the committee to weigh in on what they would like to be asked.
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“(The minister’s office) will work with senators to feed these questions into committee, and if senators choose to ask these questions of officials, then it’s an opportunity to highlight some of the features of the bill, as well as to do some ‘myth busting’ of what’s been heard this fall,” the email says.
Ministers appear before the Senate to take questions periodically and Tuesday was McKenna’s turn.
Dagenais said he wouldn’t question the non-partisan integrity of the civil servants involved but he wanted to know whether the practice of planting questions with friendly senators is specific to McKenna’s office or if it is a cabinet-wide practice.
McKenna said she prepares notes before appearing in the Senate so she can be sure to have all the details she needs to answer any question a senator wants to pose. She did not answer Dagenais’ question directly.
Her spokeswoman later said “as a general practice, we do not plant questions.”
“We work co-operatively with the government representative in the Senate, as well his team, and the relevant sponsor of specific legislation in the Senate, to help ensure senators get the information they need to fulfil an in-depth study of government bills,” said Caroline Theriault. “This includes documents such as briefing material, and Qs and As documents. We are always willing to ensure proper documentation is prepared and available for any senator who may seek it.”
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Many of the questions McKenna faced at the Senate Tuesday involved Bill C-69.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says if the bill passes as it is currently written it will ensure no more oil or gas pipelines are ever built in Canada. Other provinces are concerned about intrusion into provincial jurisdiction, and industry is particularly worried that the government has yet to release a list of the types of projects that will have to undergo a review under the bill.
McKenna said regulations and project lists are not normally produced until after a bill receives royal assent. She said the project list is being developed in consultation with provinces and industry.
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