The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Canada's procurement minister says federal contracts for personal protective equipment, vaccines and rapid test kits are in jeopardy due to a proposed parliamentary probe of the Trudeau government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The probe could trigger the release of commercially sensitive information, scaring off manufacturers and drug companies that would otherwise do business with Ottawa and ultimately placing Canadians' health at risk, Anita Anand said Monday.
"It's not just a question of violating existing contacts that, for example, may have confidentiality clauses in them; it’s also a question of undermining current negotiations," she said at a news conference.
"This is not the time to threaten and weaken our relationships with our suppliers, on whom Canadians’ health and safety depends."
Opposition parties are poised to approve the probe Monday afternoon despite growing objections from industry and experts.
A Conservative motion would order the government to turn over to the Commons health committee all records on a raft of issues related to the government's response to the pandemic.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said the government's warnings about commercial ramifications were "completely and utterly false."
The sweeping motion states explicitly that matters of national security, personal privacy and commercial sensitivities tied to vaccines are to be protected, he said Monday at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce's virtual annual meeting.
Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner accused the Liberals of trying to trigger an election, though the government has pledged not to treat the motion as a confidence matter — unlike a similar Conservative motion defeated last week that would have created a committee to look into the WE Charity controversy.
"I don't even know what to say, and that takes a lot," she said.
Pfizer Canada is the latest company to express concerns about the probe, asking how the pharmaceutical giant's commercial secrets will be protected.
In a letter to a senior Health Canada official obtained by The Canadian Press, Pfizer Canada president Cole Pinnow says his company has questions about a requirement in the motion that the government produce documents related to the production and purchase of a vaccine for COVID-19.
He goes on to say that while the company is seeking legal advice, it wants to hear from Health Canada what process will be used to vet sensitive information before it is released to the committee.
Anand warned that the House of Commons law clerk "wouldn’t have the necessary expertise in procurement" to properly redact records that would surface through the probe. "And yet the law clerk will be the one making all decisions regarding redaction," she said in French.
Rempel Garner responded that the government was "proactively calling pharmaceutical companies and fearmongering" over the weekend.
The role of the law clerk, who she said the Liberals were "attacking," is precisely to ensure that sensitive information is not released unduly, Rempel Garner said.
The Conservative motion is expected to pass with support from the federal New Democrats and Bloc Québécois, who have insisted there is sufficient protection for industry while accusing the Liberals of stoking fears.
Last week, the NDP and Greens joined the Liberals in opposing the Conservative move to create an anticorruption committee that would have had a broad mandate to examine the WE affair, and almost any other pandemic-related spending, by demanding documents and summoning senior civil servants to testify.
On Monday, New Democrats and Liberals seemed prepared to compromise on a different path for the government to turn over documents about the WE controversy, before a committee vote unexpectedly killed the move.
The Liberal government has gone through months of political turbulence for an agreement that would have seen WE Charity manage a multimillion-dollar grant program for students who volunteered during the pandemic, which has since been cancelled.
NDP and Liberal MPs on the House of Commons ethics committee voted for a compromise amendment from NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus. It narrowed a request for Trudeau family speaking records to only those pertaining to the prime minister and his wife, excluding his mother and brother. But a final vote on the amended motion failed 4-5 after Bloc MP Julie Vignola opposed it.
Bloc Québécois House leader Alain Therrien later said in French that Vignola cast her vote against the motion due to a "translation problem."
The NDP wasn't buying it.
Angus said he felt "gobsmacked" and "very frustrated," calling the Bloc's translation explanation "ridiculous."
"They voted to kill this investigation into the prime minister," Angus said in a phone interview.
“I don’t think we’re going to get those documents now," he added.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct 26, 2020.
Christopher Reynolds and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press