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Top public servant says few redactions of cabinet confidences made to WE documents

Less than 2.5% were redacted to black out information on other matters that were not relevant to the committee's investigation into the WE affair

November 25, 2020  The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — The top federal public servant says only a small fraction of the 5,000-plus pages of documents the government has released on the WE Charity affair were blacked out.

Privy Council clerk Ian Shugart told the House of Commons finance committee Nov. 24 that only about one per cent of the documents were redacted to protect cabinet confidences.

Less than 2.5% were redacted to black out information on other matters that were not relevant to the committee’s investigation into the WE affair, he added.

But opposition members of the committee said Shugart’s estimates don’t jibe with the documents released to them, which New Democrat MP Peter Julian estimated contained some 1,500 pages that were partially or fully blacked out.

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The clerk acknowledged there may have been other reasons for redactions, including solicitor-client privilege and protection of personal privacy. But he pointed out that he was asked to testify at committee Tuesday specifically on cabinet confidences.

Shugart’s testimony follows weeks of filibustering by Liberal members of the committee over opposition attempts to denounce the government’s handling of the WE documents.

The opposition-dominated committee had demanded that the documents be handed over without redactions to the parliamentary law clerk, who would determine what, if anything, needed to be blacked out. Instead, the documents were redacted before being given to the law clerk.

Shugart told the committee that cabinet confidentiality is a crucial constitutional convention that frees ministers to have full and frank discussions in cabinet while maintaining cabinet solidarity once decisions are made.

Notwithstanding the long history of keeping cabinet confidences secret, Shugart said he directed public servants to make an exception in the case of the WE affair.

He directed them to be “as transparent as possible” about releasing documents involving the student services grant program at the heart of the affair. And he told them to release documents that touched on matters about which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or his ministers had already spoken publicly.

“As a result…considerable information on the grant that would otherwise have constituted cabinet confidences was provided to the committee,” he said.

Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre noted that Shugart can be fired by the prime minister and suggested that he and other public servants used “the pretext” of cabinet confidentiality to protect the Liberal government from political embarrassment.

But Shugart said he’s “completely confident” that public servants carried out his directions fully and in a non-partisan manner. He said he informed Trudeau of the approach he was taking but did not consult him or ministers on specific decisions made about what should be released or blacked out.

Shugart made no apologies for ignoring the committee’s order that unredacted documents be sent to the law clerk. He argued that the executive branch of government has no authority to delegate its responsibility to protect cabinet confidences to the parliamentary law clerk.

The federal ethics commissioner, meanwhile, told the committee that his office has received “tens of thousands” of pages of documents on the WE affair, none of which were redacted to black out cabinet confidences.

Mario Dion is investigating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former finance minister Bill Morneau for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act.

Both Trudeau and Morneau have close family ties to WE Charity but neither recused themselves from a cabinet decision to pay the charity $43.5 million to administer the now-cancelled student services grant program.

“We did receive all the documents we need in order to conduct these two examinations, including cabinet confidences,” Dion told the committee.

Poilievre found it “very strange” that Dion’s office received more documents than the finance committee. But Dion suggested that’s because his office asked for more documents than the committee did.