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Trudeau-appointed Independent senator wants to probe issues in SNC-Lavalin affair

Trudeau-appointed Independent senator wants to probe issues in SNC-Lavalin affair


As the Commons committee studying the SNC-Lavalin affair seems to have been put on ice, the Senate is wrestling with whether it should launch its own inquiry on the matter.

But there is a battle brewing between Independent and Conservative senators on what exactly the scope should be for such a study, nearly two months after allegations of inappropriate pressure first surfaced.

While a Conservative motion proposes calling former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, a new Independent plan for a special committee proposes the focus should now shift to the wider issue of prosecutorial independence and bifurcation of the attorney general and justice minister roles.

Independent Quebec Sen. André Pratte, appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said there may not be much more to learn from Wilson-Raybould after her extended committee appearance and the release of documents and a recording. But, the Senate “should not sit on the sidelines while fundamental questions on the administration of justice in this country are being asked,” he said.

The focus, rather, should be how to protect the government’s top lawyer from political pressures in the future, Pratte said.

He is proposing a committee be quickly constituted so that it can meet and study the issue and then report back to the Senate by no later than June 1 — a very tight timeline.

‘A different, more neutral, senatorial approach’

“The [Conservative] hope is obviously to continue to embarrass the government,” Pratte said.

“On the other hand, the government’s aim is to put an end to the controversy. Our objective, as an independent Senate, should be neither to prolong nor to stifle the scandal but to provide a thorough review of the facts … we should suggest a way forward — a different, more neutral, senatorial approach.”

The former La Presse journalist-turned-senator said “the facts are now out in the open,” and thus the special committee he is prepared to launch should not be tasked with investigating what happened in this SNC-Lavalin matter alone.

“Rather, it should reflect on what it all means and what lessons we should learn from what happened. Was the pressure put on the attorney general inappropriate or not? What principles can we use to reach a conclusion? In future, is it possible to pinpoint the rare circumstances in which the attorney general can intervene with the Public Prosecution Service?”

Pratte said deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs), also known as remediation agreements, the legal tool at the heart of this matter, should also be studied by the proposed Senate committee.

Pratte’s proposal faced criticism from the Conservative opposition.

“Middle ground? More like a farce. The Trudeau Senators have dined out for 3 years on putting on a big show. This is no different. This is a smoke screen by the [Independent Senators Group] just like the one by [the Prime Minister’s Office],” Conservative Quebec Sen. Leo Housakos tweeted.

“This is again another example of the games that are being played in this chamber in order to circle the wagons, to defend the prime minister who has done something the Canadian public and the press for weeks have been calling upon him to respond to clearly and unequivocally,” Housakos said in the chamber on Thursday.

The Conservative opposition in the upper house, led by leader Larry Smith, has sought to supplement the Commons justice inquiry with a wide-reaching investigation of their own at the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee.

Smith’s motion featured a long list of potential witnesses, including the prime minister himself, but also Trudeau’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, and eight others.

That plan has faced head-winds from some Trudeau-appointed Independent senators and the government’s representative in the upper house, Peter Harder, who say such an inquiry would be consumed by partisanship and that such a study is best placed for a Commons committee composed of elected parliamentarians. Tories say such opposition is equally partisan in that it shields the government from further scrutiny.

But Smith withdrew his motion Thursday in favour of another Tory proposal, from Conservative Sen. Don Plett, the party’s whip. That motion suggests calling Wilson-Raybould alone as a witness, a potentially more workable plan with only eight weeks left of Parliament before it rises for the summer recess.

Pratte sought to head off government opposition to his committee proposal — or the suggestion that this Senate body would simply duplicate the study by former Liberal justice minister Anne McClellan — by saying the other work underway on this issue is to be conducted largely in secret.

“Ms. McLellan is not Parliament. Her advice to the prime minister will undoubtedly be very valuable, but many heads are better than one. Moreover, she will not do her work in public as a Senate committee would do, thereby educating both the public and parliamentarians on these complex issues,” Pratte said.



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Canada lost 7,200 jobs in March, ending 6-month string of gains

Canada lost 7,200 jobs in March, ending 6-month string of gains


Canada’s job market shrank by 7,200 positions in March, but the jobless rate held steady at 5.8 per cent.

Statistics Canada reported Friday that most provinces lost jobs, especially Quebec (down by 12,900 jobs) and Ontario (down 8,800 jobs). British Columbia added 7,900 jobs, Saskatchewan added 3,900 jobs, New Brunswick added 3,100 jobs and Prince Edward Island added 2,000.

Everywhere else, the job market was flat.

The monthly decline comes on the heels of the best two-month start to the year for Canada’s job market in almost 40 years, with 66,800 new jobs in January and 55,900 in February.

Economists had been expecting a slowdown from those highs, but thought the economy would still eke out a gain of about 2,300 jobs for the month, on average, according to Bloomberg. So the March loss came as a surprise.

While the overall economy lost jobs, many sectors saw gains.

“It was a mixed bag,” TD Bank economist Brian DePratto said. Goods-producing industries added about 1,600 jobs overall, but that was more than offset by widespread declines in the service sector, including 20,000 lost in health care and 14,000 in business support.

De Pratto said while the headline number was certainly negative, overall, the report wasn’t all that bad.

“The end of a six-month streak of job gains is sure to catch headlines, but given the strength we’ve seen over the past half-year, a flat report isn’t really surprising and indeed makes some sense given the relatively modest performance of other economic indicators in recent months,” he said.



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Canada expects foreign meddling in October election, Chrystia Freeland says

Canada expects foreign meddling in October election, Chrystia Freeland says


Canadian Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Friday it was likely that foreign actors would meddle in the country’s October elections, and her British counterpart said a deterrent to stop countries like Russia from interfering was critical.

U.S. intelligence officials and the governments of some European Union countries have accused Russia of interfering in their elections in recent years, allegations strongly denied by Moscow.

When asked whether she was worried Russia would interfere in the election, Freeland said she was “very concerned.”

“Our judgment is that interference is very likely and we think there have probably already been efforts by malign foreign actors to disrupt our democracy,” she said, speaking at a media freedom event on the sidelines of a G7 foreign ministers meeting in France.

Freeland said such attempts were not aimed at securing a particular outcome in a national elections, but to polarize Western societies.

The foreign ministers of the G7 nations — the U.S., France, Japan, Germany, Britain, Italy and Canada — as well as the European Union are meeting in Dinard, Brittany, where they are expected later to agree on common norms that would seek to prevent foreign powers from destabilizing democratic nations.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was imperative for liberal democracies to tackle interference by Russia and others.

“We know that states like Russia have got a very active, planned, thought-through strategy to interfere in democratic processes in Western countries and [to sow] dissension and chaos wherever they can,” Hunt said.

“We are getting much better at fending off these attacks when they happen. What we don’t do at the moment is deter them from happening in the first place.”

He said the discussions at the G7 on Friday would be aimed at finding a deterrence strategy that imposed a high price for meddling with democratic processes.



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Saudi retaliation against Canada during feud detailed in government memo

Saudi retaliation against Canada during feud detailed in government memo


The fallout from Saudi Arabia’s move to punish Canadian companies was felt within a month of the countries’ sudden diplomatic feud last summer, leading to visa rejections, a government ban on food from Canada and a blockage of shipments at the kingdom’s ports.

A newly released federal document provides a close look at Saudi Arabia’s retaliation against Canada, following criticism by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland on Twitter of the regime’s arrest of women’s rights activists.

Angered by the public condemnation, Saudi Arabia suspended diplomatic ties with Canada last August, expelled the Canadian ambassador and recalled its own envoy from Ottawa.

The kingdom also stopped future trade and investment deals, cancelled grain imports and said it would shut down lucrative scholarships for its citizens to study in Canada. The Saudi central bank and state pension funds started selling their Canadian holdings.

A briefing note to International Trade Minister Jim Carr offers more detail on how events were unfolding on the ground about a month after the start of the dispute.

“It is important to note that over the last few days Global Affairs Canada has been learning of concrete actions taken by Saudi Arabia against Canadian companies across various sectors,” reads the memo, released this week to The Canadian Press under access-to-information law.

The document went on to list numerous measures, including:

  • Requests for existing contracts to be replaced by new contracts with non-Canadian suppliers.
  • Denial of access to military bases.Payment delays.
  • Re-routing of flights for product supplies.
  • Prevention of a Canadian company from importing and selling medication.
  • Government ministries issuing orders to ban food and medication from Canada.
  • Various shipments from Canada being completely stopped at Saudi ports.

The note was created last September for Carr in preparation for his meeting with members of the Canada Arab Business Council, who have interests in the kingdom.

The additional details of the dispute with Saudi Arabia emerge as Canada tries to manage other, bigger trade-related challenges with its two largest partners, the United States and China.

No rapprochement yet for former key partners

Saudi Arabia has previously been a key partner for Canada in the Middle East and, according to a separate internal briefing note, the countries had more than $4 billion worth of trade in 2017. That year, Saudi Arabia had $1.28 billion worth of direct investment in Canada, said the memo prepared for Finance Minister Bill Morneau after the crisis broke out.

Scott Jolliffe, the president of the Canada Arab Business Council, said in an interview that Saudi investment in Canada ground to a halt last August. He also said Canadian firms have been restricted from bidding on new projects in the kingdom.

On the other hand, he said things have mostly carried on as usual for those of his members who already had business in the country. Jolliffe also said he hadn’t heard of any visa refusals.

He said he would like to see the impasse resolved because Saudi Arabia and the region offer billions of dollars’ worth of potential business for Canadian companies — and possible alternatives to the U.S. There’s a deep need there, he added, for the expertise Canada offers in areas like infrastructure, telecommunications and engineering.

“At the moment, it doesn’t appear as if there is much going on to strengthen and rebuild the relationship,” said Jolliffe, who’s had meetings with Carr about the issue.

The feud has had an impact on agriculture. Feed-barley producers, for instance, have been shut out of the Saudi market.

“Any country we lose, even if it’s temporary, hurts us,” said Dave Bishop, a farmer and chair of Alberta Barley.

He said Canada had been shipping about 122,000 tonnes of feed barley to Saudi Arabia every year — amounts that can sometimes reach 10 per cent of all Canadian exports of the product.

This year, the industry has been lucky that feed barley is in short supply worldwide and extra demand from markets like China has helped make up for being shut out of Saudi Arabia, Bishop added.

Human rights, Khashoggi still a concern

The memo to Carr last September said Freeland and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in an effort to resolve the conflict, “have been discussing ideas to de-escalate … including an incremental approach which could include a series of steps.”

Asked about the status of Saudi-Canadian relations now, Carr’s office provided a statement that said he’s still disappointed with the kingdom’s response to Canada’s human-rights concerns.

A few weeks after Carr received the memo, the kingdom’s relationship with Canada came under further strain — as did its relations with many countries — as details emerged about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Adam Austen, a spokesman for Freeland, said Thursday that Saudi Arabia’s explanations for the killing have been inadequate and that Canada has called for a thorough, credible and independent international investigation.



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Veterans Affairs sent condolences to 'widow' of still-living veteran

Veterans Affairs sent condolences to ‘widow’ of still-living veteran


It was a surreal moment for Truman Tremblay.

On March 23, the former RCMP officer and military reservist — who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder — had just arrived home in Kamloops, B.C. from a spring break vacation. In his mailbox he found an official-looking letter addressed to his wife.

Moments later, his speechless wife Allison showed him the letter — expressing Veterans Affairs Canada’s sympathies regarding the death of her husband and offering to help out the newly-bereaved widow.

“My initial thought was, ‘Wow! My God, how in the hell did such an error happened?'” Tremblay, 48, told CBC News.

“The letter didn’t specify when or how I died. It just said that they wanted to send their condolences and that if she needed any assistance to contact them, and also to contact the Last Post Fund for burial benefits and things of that nature, and it was signed by a veteran’s service agent.”

That jaw-dropping gaffe happened just a few weeks after Tremblay transitioned from Veterans Affairs’ more personalized case management system to the less direct, more generic service agent system.

Now a federal parole officer, he served in the RCMP for four years in B.C. in the late 1990s and developed PTSD after witnessing gruesome accident scenes. He was formally diagnosed in 2012 and is still receiving treatment.

What frustrates Tremblay about the letter, he said, is the seeming indifference he’s faced while trying to find out how and why it happened, and what Veterans Affairs is doing to make sure similar mistakes don’t happen to veterans who may be in more fragile psychological conditions.

Veterans Affairs apologizes

He said he’s spoken with three different people at Veterans Affairs, including a staffer in the deputy minister’s office.

The department has launched an investigation but Tremblay said the only thing he’s been told so far is the obvious — that the letter was sent in error and the department is sorry. He’s also been told that the mistake happened when a case manager transferred his file.

The department did write a letter of apology and posted it to Tremblay’s online Veterans Affairs account.

Tremblay said that what bothers him most is the fact that no one at the department tried to confirm that he was actually dead. He said he wonders whether the error represents a systemic problem.

He also wants to see someone held accountable for the emotional upset — which is what would happen, he said, if someone in his parole office made a similar mistake.

“I know that if someone was to make an error and change an offender status from living to deceased, they would likely have their employment terminated,” said Tremblay.

“So I could just not imagine how someone made such an error. It just arrived and there were no phone calls. No one calls to check on me and see if such a thing even occurred in the first place.”

‘Immediate action’

A spokesperson for Veterans Affairs said the department is still investigating and has tried to make amends.

“Veterans Affairs Canada is deeply sorry for this mistake,” said France Bureau, the department’s director of public affairs. “As soon as we became aware of the mistake, we reached out and a letter of apology has been sent. As in all circumstances when errors happen, immediate action has been taken to review the issue and avoid future mistakes.”

She said there is protocol in place to verify reports that a veteran has passed away, but in this circumstance there was “human error.”



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SNC-Lavalin fallout has some Indigenous Canadians questioning Trudeau's commitment to reconciliation

SNC-Lavalin fallout has some Indigenous Canadians questioning Trudeau’s commitment to reconciliation


The Trudeau government is defending its commitment to reconciliation as a growing number of Indigenous leaders and youth say they’re discouraged by his decision to eject two key figures on the file from the Liberal caucus.

“I’m very disappointed that it had to come to this,” said Linden Waboose, a 22-year-old from from Eabametoong First Nation who sits on the Nishnawbe Aski Nation Oshkaatisak Council, an advisory network of ten youths aged 18-29 from Northern Ontario.

“I feel like [Trudeau] doesn’t value that relationship he committed to in 2015.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said no relationship is more important to him and to Canada than the one with First Nations, the Metis Nation and Inuit Peoples.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at an evening caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday after kicking both former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and fellow ex-cabinet minister Jane Philpott out of the Liberal caucus. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The day after he chose to oust Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from the Liberal caucus, Trudeau faced some hard questions about that promise from young women who gathered on Wednesday for the Daughters of the Vote event in the House of Commons. In response, Trudeau said again that reconciliation is “probably one of the most important” issues for his government.

Reconciliation ‘way more than one person’

Many in Indigenous communities saw Wilson-Raybould and Philpott as champions of their causes.

Philpott won respect for her efforts as Indigenous Services minister to end drinking water advisories and reform Indigenous child welfare. Wilson-Raybould was, of course, the first Indigenous person to hold the position of justice minister and attorney general.

Crown–Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett says the government’s work on reconciliation goes beyond the work of one person. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett calls Wilson-Raybould a trailblazer, but said the work on reconciliation continues.

“This is way more than one person,” Bennett said.

“This is our Indigenous caucus. This is all the partnerships we made. We want to keep going on reconciliation. Equality means that if you cross the line, there are consequences.”

Investments in reconciliation are significant part of the Liberal government’s election year budget; $4.5 billion has been added over the next five years to try to narrow the socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

‘Irreparable harm and damage’

The SNC-Lavalin scandal has been eating into Liberal support since Feb. 7, when the Globe and Mail reported that Wilson-Raybould had faced inappropriate political pressure over the decision to pursue criminal prosecution of the company on bribery charges. Wilson-Raybould and Philpott both later resigned from cabinet to protest the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file.

In her testimony before the Commons Justice Committee during its investigation of the SNC-Lavalin affair, Wilson-Raybould said she would not apologize for being a strong advocate of transformative change for Indigenous peoples.

As she was being shuffled from her justice post, she warned senior people in the government that it would not look good for the government.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, wants the prime minister to apologize to Jody-Wilson Raybould and Jane Philpott. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In text messages to Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s then-principal secretary, she wrote that the “timing of pushing me out (which will be the perception, whether true or not) is terrible. It will be confounding and perplexing to people.”

That perception is already being echoed by some.

“I think there is irreparable harm and damage done to Prime Minister Trudeau’s vision and stated intent to carry forward the reconciliation agenda,” said Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.

“The trust has been broken.”

Russ Diabo, a First Nations policy analyst, believes reconciliation is tied to the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Stewart warned that the Trudeau government will be a “one-time wonder” and said the only way it can repair its relationship with those hurt over the prime minister’s decision to oust Wilson-Raybould and Philpott from caucus is for Trudeau to apologize and then step down.

The outrage could have consequences in this fall’s federal election. Some pollsters suggest Indigenous voters could swing the outcome in as many as 11 ridings.

A ‘double standard’

First Nations policy analyst Russ Diabo said he also believes the way Wilson-Raybould and Philpott were dropped from caucus will cast a shadow over the government’s reconciliation agenda. He pointed out that Wilson-Raybould was offered the Indigenous Services portfolio after being shuffled out of justice, but turned it down because of her opposition to the Indian Act she would have had to administer in that job.

“In the context of this reconciliation agenda, she is a symbol of, I think, the Trudeau government’s commitment to fulfilling that,” Diabo said.

“The intent of the government is in question.”

Diabo said the criticism of Wilson-Raybould over her decision to secretly record a phone call with Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick amounts to a “double standard,” because Wernick was deputy minister in the former Indian Affairs department when it was monitoring the social media posts of First Nations activist Cindy Blackstock.

Sheelah McLean, one of the co-founders of the Idle No More movement, said Philpott is also a symbol — of how non-Indigenous Canadians can stand in solidarity with Indigenous people.

“The fact that they left together, I think, is a much larger narrative that really challenges what’s been happening in Canada over the last 150 years,” McLean said.

“This is about Indigenous peoples standing up against government and corporations, and then about what are Canadians, what are non-Indigenous people going to do to support Indigenous people as they continue this fight against colonialism.”

AFN questions government’s ‘motivations and actions’

In a written statement, the Assembly of First Nations also expresses its disappointment with Philpott and Wilson-Raybould’s punishment.

“The events of the past few weeks raise serious concerns about the motivations and actions of this government,” wrote National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

“In order to regain First Nations’ trust, we must all recommit ourselves to reconciliation and I urge both the Government of Canada and all parliamentarians to focus on passing key First Nation legislative priorities in this session of Parliament. This includes supporting a better future for First Nations children and families based on respect for our rights, languages, and cultures.”

Supporters of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott like B.C. Regional Chief Terry Teegee are using the hashtags #istandwithJody and #istandwithjane online.

“She [Wilson-Raybould] was doing her job, upholding the law and the integrity of the attorney general’s office, and as soon as she did that and held to her principles, as an Indigenous woman, as a government official, she’s being punished for it by the powers at be,” Teegee said.

“I think it could’ve been handled a lot better.”

But not every organization feels that way.

Metis Nation defends Trudeau

Clément Chartier, the president of the Métis Nation, questions why the two MPs weren’t expelled from the Liberal caucus sooner.

“For the Métis Nation, we believe that this prime minister and this government have done more than any other government, or more than any other prime minister, in dealing with us on a nation-to-nation, government-to-government basis,” Chartier said.

“This whole thing with the former attorney general, we saw as a major distraction getting away from what the prime minister should be concentrating on in terms of reconciliation, and in particular with the major nation.”

Waboose said the examples of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott have convinced him to pursue a career in politics.

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde and then-Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott listen to a delegate’s question at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa in December 2017. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

“It’s inspired me to be a politician one day,” said Waboose, who wants to be an MP.

“I hope one day that I can become the first prime minister, the first Indigenous prime minister of Canada.”

Ashley Wesley, 24, from Mishkeegogamang First Nation, sees this as a moment for the government to act.

“Some youth are really disappointed and discouraged by what’s happened. Other youth have expressed they’re upset, but they’re also motivated to try to push for changes in the government,” Wesley said.

“This is an opportunity for the government to show they are really serious.”





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Focus groups pan CRA's gentle written tax reminders as too 'promotional'

Focus groups pan CRA’s gentle written tax reminders as too ‘promotional’


Canadians who were surveyed about two Canada Revenue Agency letters aimed at encouraging the tardy to file their taxes questioned their credibility, saying the messages were too “promotional” in tone.

Earnscliffe Strategy Group conducted several focus groups across Canada for CRA in September, 2018 to both find out why some people don’t file their federal taxes and to evaluate two different letters being sent to non-filers.

Both letters emphasize the carrot over the stick, telling recipients they could be missing out on benefits and tax credits by not filing.

“There was definitely a sense, across all the groups, that the letters were a little promotional in their approach, which caused many participants to question the credibility,” the report says.

“When asked the main message of the letters, participants suggested that the letters were a reminder to file their taxes under the guise of an invitation to earn credit and benefit money.”

Trust issues

Experts say this points to an ongoing trust issue many Canadians have with the CRA.

“Certainly from a lot of peoples’ experiences, and from some of what I’ve seen here, that skepticism is warranted,” Ian Rothman, a chartered professional accountant based in Markham, Ontario, told CBC News.

The CRA says the letters are sincere, but concedes that taxpayers might not see them that way.

“In the case of this public opinion research, we heard from some taxpayers that our approach, even if well intended, can be perceived in manners which are unintended,”  the agency said in an email statement to CBC News.

Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier acknowledged in a written response emailed to the CBC that the CRA has long had a reputation for instilling fear in Canadians — but the government is trying to change that.

“This new approach requires a change in organizational culture. And culture change takes time. Over the last three and half years, the CRA has worked hard to embrace this new way of doing things,” Lebouthillier said.

The focus group research also showed that the letters were not effective in their purpose because, for the most part, very few people in the focus group remembered having received the letters in the first place. The report says that of the non-filers who subsequently went on to file their taxes, only one did so as a result of receiving the letter.

“Most would have preferred a simple reminder that their taxes had not yet been filed,” said the report.

The targets of the letters are low-income individuals and people with children who might benefit from the GST/HST credit or the Canada Child Benefit.

“Low income people should file, absolutely,” said Rothman. “There are benefits and they should file.”

Even people who owe money, Rothman said, should file to avoid financial penalties that can compound over time.

A recent example of the Canada Revenue Agency’s online outreach. (CBC News)

The report found that Canadians who don’t file have a wide variety of reasons for not filing — problems with a new accountant, other unresolved claims with the CRA, being unable to reach someone at the agency or past negative interactions with the CRA, to name a few.

Some felt that given their “personal economic situations, and the fact they were always owed some money, the time and effort required to file taxes did not outweigh the benefit they would receive from CRA,” said the report.

‘Highway robbery’

In fact, focus group participants used words such as “complicated,” “unfair,” “highway robbery” and “bullies” to describe the CRA and the act of filing taxes.

The CRA says that it commissions third party public opinion research to get honest and unbiased feedback directly from Canadian taxpayers.

“When an organization asks for honest feedback, it has to be prepared to hear some hard truths,” the agency said in its emailed statement.

The focus groups made a number of suggestions for improvements at CRA, such as creating YouTube video tutorials on tax filing, making available free online filing software, running income tax clinics across the country and offering the services of volunteers to help with filing.

The CRA says that some of the software products listed on its website are free of charge, based on an individual’s tax situation or income levels.

The CRA says that it is analyzing the results of the report to decide how the letters to non-filers might be improved. A new version of the letter is tentatively scheduled for release later this year.



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Watch today's full question period Live

Watch today’s full question period Live


The House of Commons is not sitting this week. Question period returns next Monday at 2:15 p.m. ET.

About question period:

  • Monday-Thursday 2:15-3 p.m. ET, Fridays 11:15 a.m.-12 p.m. ET
  • Leader of the Opposition asks first questions.
  • All questions are posed through the Speaker. Generally, PM answers only leaders’ questions.



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Advisory committee kept out of the loop on veterans' controversial new PTSD form

Advisory committee kept out of the loop on veterans’ controversial new PTSD form


A committee that is supposed to advise the Veterans Affairs minister on mental health issues was kept in the dark about changes to an important disability questionnaire meant to document post-traumatic stress disorder claims by former soldiers.

One member of the committee, Aaron Bedard — a former combat engineer who served in Afghanistan — said he only learned about the changes through CBC News on Tuesday.

“There were no emails, no teleconferences to discuss this. It came out of nowhere,” said Bedard.

“Our job is to advise them on any changes to do with mental health and veterans. Our job is to provide input to make sure whatever they’re doing is thorough.”

Some mental health professionals who treat soldiers and police officers with PTSD worry the newly streamlined form will lead to delays in treatment and disability awards.

Veterans Affairs has a long history of demanding precise information before approving claims. It’s feared the new, more generalized form will trigger unnecessary requests for clarification from veterans who are already fragile.

‘In hindsight …’

The veterans minister’s mental health advisory committee includes both physicians and veterans.

Michel Doiron, assistant deputy minister of service delivery at Veterans Affairs, confirmed the panel was not consulted about the changes and was vague when asked why it was left out of the loop.

“In hindsight, maybe” they should have been told, Doiron said in an interview with CBC News.

He insisted, however, that the revisions were put before another advisory panel responsible for ensuring the department delivers better services.

The operational stress injury clinics that deal with troubled soldiers also were consulted, as were members of the medical community who have been clamouring for shorter, more simplified forms.

“The reality is the form that we did put out was based on comments from doctors and a lot of complaints we had from health professionals when we do town halls, or when we go to medical associations,” Doiron said.

“They come back and tell us our forms are too long, too complicated, we’re asking too much information. Doctors, you know, they’re busy and filling out a lot of forms and long forms is not always very positive for them.”

The department has no intention of engaging veterans in back-and-forth information requests because the new “form provides us all the information we need” and the department trusts the medical diagnoses, Doiron said.

Critics say that remains to be seen.

The federal government’s own diagnostic criteria are quite specific. Physicians often receive letters from the feds that tell them that “recording the frequency of symptoms is very important in determining the extent of the disability” and “failure to provide the frequency of symptoms or the treatment information may result in the disability assessment being delayed.”

‘No discussion. No consultations’

The fact an end-run took place around the advisory committee spoke volumes to former veterans minister Erin O’Toole, who said the department seemed determined to ram through the changes as a way to deal with the enormous backlog of claims before the department.

“It shows that they don’t take the concerns of veterans seriously,” he said.

“No discussion. No consultations. And already physicians are worried that veterans will not get the benefits they need because of this form. They should halt it immediately and come in [to the House of Commons veterans committee] and explain why the changes were made.”

New Democrat veterans critic Rachel Blaney said she is skeptical of the department’s claim that the shorter form will lead to faster service for veterans.

“Perhaps the intention is to try to make this process simpler,” she said, “but what we’re seeing clearly is that the impact could be very detrimental to the people who served our country.”

Blaney said the department should take a step back and reflect on the criticism it has heard, because lives are at stake.



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SNC-Lavalin insider's bribery allegations spark probe by Crown agency that loaned the firm billions

SNC-Lavalin insider’s bribery allegations spark probe by Crown agency that loaned the firm billions


Export Development Canada has hired outside legal counsel to review some of its dealings with SNC-Lavalin. The review comes after a company insider told CBC News the engineering giant secured billions in loans from the Crown agency over the years, some of which he alleges was intended to pay bribes.

If true, it could mean taxpayers have unwittingly backed illegal payments.

Export Development Canada is a federal agency that provides financing and insurance to Canadian businesses operating abroad.

The insider, who worked on several large projects funded by EDC, claims it was an “open secret” within SNC-Lavalin that “technical fees” listed in budget proposals included cash to be used as bribes to secure international contracts.

Those line items could total millions of dollars. The insider says EDC’s internal due diligence policies should have detected something was going on.

He says “technical fees” were part of a larger “lexicon of bribes” used within SNC-Lavalin.

EDC has denied knowledge of any improper payments, but last Friday said it is taking a closer look at a 2011 deal with SNC-Lavalin involving a $250-million project to refurbish the Matala hydroelectric dam in Angola. EDC provided the Quebec-based company with “political risk insurance” for the project.

“We would never, under any circumstances, knowingly participate in a transaction tainted by bribery or corruption,” David Bhamjee, EDC’s vice-president of corporate communications, wrote in an email.

“This behaviour goes against EDC’s core values and deep-rooted culture of business integrity.”

The SNC-Lavalin insider’s allegations come as a political storm rages over accusations Prime Minister Justin Trudeau replaced his attorney general for refusing to intervene and spare the company a criminal prosecution on fraud and corruption charges.

CBC News has agreed not to identify the insider because he fears losing his job.

He says EDC support was vital for the success of construction projects in underdeveloped parts of the world known for corruption. The projects included airports, power plants and dams, and the EDC loans to SNC-Lavalin ranged from a few million dollars to upward of $500 million.

The insider alleges that, prior to 2012 — when the head of SNC-Lavalin’s construction division was arrested in Switzerland for bribery in Libya — EDC was funding numerous projects that featured “slush funds.”

Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, appearing at the Commons justice committee on Feb. 27, says she resisted pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in the fraud and corruption case against SNC-Lavalin and spare the Quebec-based engineering firm a potentially damaging prosecution. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

He says the problems with the technical fees should have been caught by EDC auditors for two reasons. First, he says, they were listed as Canadian expenses, but a portion flowed to consultants or “agents” on the ground in foreign countries to help the company win contracts.

The second red flag, he says, should have been the sheer size of the technical fees, which could total as much as 10 per cent of a project’s overall budget.

“That’s a lot of steak dinners,” the source quipped.

In 2013, CBC News and the Globe and Mail exposed a similar scheme inside SNC-Lavalin. Some budgets included items called “project consultancy costs” or “PCCs.” The code was used to mask secret payments for projects in Africa, India, Cambodia and Kazakhstan.

SNC-Lavalin admitted to CBC News those PCC payments were “improper,” and in 2015, paid a $1.5-million penalty to resolve allegations it bribed public officials to win road projects in Uganda and Mozambique that were funded by the African Development Bank.

None of the projects tied to PCC payments was funded by EDC.

Angola dam project under review

EDC insists that if it learns its funding is being used for bribes or corruption, it cancels the deal.

The Angola dam project first came under scrutiny in 2013, when an SNC-Lavalin employee fired from the job filed a lawsuit claiming the company had covertly paid a 10 per cent commission to win the contract.

SNC-Lavalin settled the suit out of court. It is unclear what steps, if any, EDC took to examine the deal at the time.

The insider recalls there was tension within SNC-Lavalin because numerous bribery scandals involving the company had made headlines.

“There was a lot of breath-holding,” he said. “Some of the projects that were investigated … were projects overseas that were financed by EDC.

“If it had been [exposed publicly], at that time, that a bribe had been paid, EDC would have been obliged never to allow SNC-Lavalin to have access to export credit funds.”

Export Development Canada, the country’s export credit agency, has loaned SNC-Lavalin billions of dollars since the mid-1990s. (CBC)

EDC announced last week it will now review its role in the Angola project, after receiving questions from CBC News. The agency says based on that review, it could expand its probe to look at other past agreements with SNC-Lavalin.

In the past, SNC-Lavalin has blamed rogue employees for problems with the Angola project. This week, the company declined to answer a list of questions about its use of technical fees on other EDC-backed projects.

‘Increasingly concerned’

EDC says it conducts due diligence and that “technical fees and agent fees are common and legitimate operational expenses.”

“We also appreciate that they can be used as one of many mechanisms to hide illegal or improper payments,” Bhamjee wrote. “Those who want to conceal payments take great pains to do so, making these payments extremely difficult to uncover.”

However, EDC says it did not begin scrutinizing these types of fees until 2006, when the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development issued a warning about their potential abuse.

“We remain confident that the processes we undertook throughout our financing history with the company were sound and adhered to best practices of the day,” wrote EDC spokesperson Jessica Draker.

Over the past 25 years, EDC has provided as much as $4.7 billion in loans to SNC-Lavalin for ventures in Europe, Africa and Latin America, making the company one of the largest recipients of taxpayer-backed loans.

EDC concedes it was slow to suspend funding for new SNC-Lavalin projects, which it did from late 2014 until 2017, as the company faced multiple scandals.

The World Bank sounded an alarm in 2012 over allegations SNC-Lavalin tried to bribe officials in Bangladesh. It has banned the company from bidding on World Bank projects until 2023.

“In the years leading up to our suspension, we became increasingly concerned about the myriad allegations facing the company,” said EDC’s David Bhamjee, noting EDC did beef up monitoring of SNC-Lavalin deals.

“We could have — and perhaps should have — suspended business earlier,” he said.

EDC only resumed doing business with SNC-Lavalin in 2017, after the company overhauled its internal accounting and whistleblower policies, he said.

‘Black box’

The head of Toronto-based watchdog group Probe International says if there’s any truth to the allegations EDC money was used for bribes, it implicates all Canadians.

“[EDC] operates on the Queen’s credit card,” said Patricia Adams. “That means that it operates on our credit cards.”

According to EDC’s website the Crown agency operates at arm’s length from government and is “self-financing.”

However, Adams says all of its debts and liabilities are backed by the government.

“It doesn’t exist but for the Canadian taxpayer.”

Adams says the public has very little idea of how the Crown agency operates.

“[It] is a secretive institution that sets its own rules and standards and regulates itself, with little public oversight,” she said.

“They’re a black box.”

Patricia Adams of the watchdog group Probe International says Canadians need to know more about how EDC operates. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

One EDC-backed SNC-Lavalin project is currently under investigation by the RCMP.

The case dates back to the early 2000s. RCMP investigators believe SNC-Lavalin funnelled $2.3 million from a contract to build an airport hangar in Algeria to pay bribes in Canada, according to a search warrant issued last year.

Michel Fournier, the former head of Canada’s Federal Bridge Corporation, which maintains several of the country’s largest overpasses, has already pleaded guilty to accepting the money in exchange for helping SNC-Lavalin win a $127-million contract to refurbish Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge.

When asked about the ongoing RCMP probe, SNC-Lavalin replied: “No comment.”

Send tips to dave.seglins@cbc.ca or rachel.houlihan@cbc.ca.



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