The Senate Bill C-11 hearings have provided a model for the much-needed, engaged, non-partisan inquiry that was largely missing from the House committee’s theatrics in which the government cut off debate on over 150 amendments. But this week those hearings attracted attention for another reason: serious charges of witness intimidation and bullying by government MPs, most notably Canadian Heritage Parliamentary Secretary Chris Bittle (yes, the same Bittle who last month suggested I was a racist and a bully for raising concerns about Minister Pablo Rodriguez silence over Canadian Heritage funding of an anti-semite as part of its anti-hate program).
The Globe and Mail reported late on Tuesday night that Bittle – together with his colleague, Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner – had sent a letter to the Lobbying Commissioner to seek an investigation into the funding of Digital First Canada, a group representing digital first creators. The letter may have been shopped around to other MPs as Liberal MP Anthony Housefather has told the Globe he did not sign it. DFC’s Executive Director, Scott Benzie, had appeared before the Heritage committee months ago and Bittle used his time to focus on the organization’s funding. Leaving aside the fact that government MPs reserve these kinds of questions only for critics of Bill C-11 (there were no similar questions this week from Ms. Hepfner to the Director of Digital Content Next, whose organization supports Bill C-18 and counts Fox News among its members), the timing of Globe story was incredibly troubling. The Lobbyist Commissioner letter was apparently filed nearly two months ago and Benzie had been assured that he was compliant with the law. Yet the story was presumably leaked to coincide with Benzie’s appearance before the Senate committee last night.
The letter and leak smacked of witness intimidation and bullying with the government seeking to undermine critics of the legislation hours before a Senate appearance. Indeed, the entire tactic felt like the policy equivalent of a SLAPP suit, which are used to intimidate and silence critics through litigation. By the end of the day, the tactic had clearly backfired on Bittle and the government. Conservative MP John Nater filed a point of privilege in the House of Commons, arguing that Bittle had attempted to intimidate a Senate witness.
I rise on a question of privilege, for which I gave notice earlier this same day, regarding the conduct of the member for St. Catharines, who attempted to intimidate Scott Benzie, a witness appearing before a committee of the Senate studying Bill C-11, an act to amend the Broadcasting Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other acts, as reported yesterday by the Globe and Mail.
While I appreciate that this attempt to intimidate relates to proceedings of a Senate committee currently studying Bill C-11, the culprit in this case is a member of the House, and that same witness appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage during its deliberations on Bill C-11, an appearance where Mr. Benzie, no doubt, first established himself as an undesirable witness for the government on the merits of Bill C-11.
The government response was surprisingly muted with MP Mark Gerretsen simply asking for a couple of days to formulate a response, perhaps recognizing that defending Bittle would mean defending the indefensible.
The matter escalated further at the Senate committee, where multiple Senators raised the issue, including Senator Housakos who expressed concern with witness intimidation and Senator Don Plett, who said he was “disgusted” by what Chris Bittle had done. There were no attempts to defend Bittle at the committee. Indeed, the only real question now is whether there will be any consequences for the witness intimidation and bullying (which as noted comes on top of previous claims of racism and bullying). For the government to give this a pass would rightly be regarded by many as failing to take a stand against the very conduct it claims to want to address. Moreover, while Bittle and Hepfner placed their names on the letter, it seems virtually certain that Rodriguez’s office would have granted their approval to the complaint and likely have been the source of the leak.
If so, it culminates a remarkable first year as Heritage Minister for Rodriguez, who has managed to:
- Gaslight the public for months on regulating user content in Bill C-11 (which is now accepted as fact by the Senate committee)
- Been publicly contradicted by his own CRTC chair on multiple occasions with respect to the implications of Bill C-11 for user content and regulating algorithms
- Cut off debate on Bill C-11 and required votes on over 150 amendments without public disclosure, leading to changes opposed by creator groups
- Lost the support of some of the government’s most reliable supporters, such as the editorial board of the Toronto Star
- Introduced online news legislation that is being criticized by over 100 independent news publications. Rodriguez has not spoken to the bill in the House of Commons and cut off debate months ago.
- Refused to publicly release his statement on Canadian Heritage funding an anti-semite as part of its anti-hate program
Now add to that presiding over a Parliamentary Secretary accused of engaging in witness intimidation. It is an astonishing and embarrassing record that desperately requires a reset. As the Senate hearing has demonstrated, these issues need not be overly partisan. Rather, the concerns of all Canadians should be viewed as important, not something to be ignored or bullied. It may seem like a simple ask, but thus far Rodriguez has instead preferred to battle with creators who don’t share his views and remained silent in the face of concerns regarding witness intimidation and bullying.