The concerns over witness intimidation and bullying targeting Bill C-11’s critics continues to attract attention on Parliament Hill as Senators spent more than an hour debating the issue earlier this week. The issue stems from a Globe and Mail report that Canadian Heritage Parliamentary Secretary Chris Bittle – together with his colleague, Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner – sent a letter to the Lobbying Commissioner to seek an investigation into the funding of Digital First Canada, a group representing digital first creators. DFC’s Executive Director, Scott Benzie, appeared before the Heritage committee in the spring and Bittle used his time to focus on the organization’s funding. The Lobbyist Commissioner letter was apparently filed more than two months ago and Benzie had been assured that he was compliant with the law. The story was presumably leaked to coincide with Benzie’s appearance before the Senate committee, a tactic that smacked of witness intimidation and bullying with the government seeking to undermine a critic of the legislation. Soon after, Conservative MP John Nater filed a point of privilege in the House of Commons, arguing that Bittle had attempted to intimidate a Senate witness and the matter escalated further at the Senate committee, where multiple Senators raised the issue.
On Tuesday, the Speaker of the House of Commons dismissed Nater’s point of privilege, finding “this question of privilege stems from the deliberations of a Senate committee. My role as Speaker is limited to only protecting the rights and privileges of the House of Commons and its members.” He added that “it is not immediately apparent that the conduct in question was intended as an attempt to intimidate the witness or an act of reprisal for his appearances before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage.”
Yet many Senators were not so sure. Minutes after the ruling, Senator Scott Tannas raised much the same issue in the Senate. That sparked extensive debate with the focus on two issues: the letter to the Lobbyist Commissioner and the leak of the story to the Globe seemingly timed to coincide with Benzie’s Senate appearance. The Speaker of the Senate has yet to rule, though several Senators argued that there was not a prima facie case of intimidation, noting that tying the source of the leak to Canadian Heritage was speculative and that journalist protections precluded investigating that issue further. The conduct might be – in the words in Senator Paula Simons – “dirty pool” – but not evidence of witness intimidation.
But even if witness intimidation cannot be definitively proven to sustain a point of privilege, there is something wrong here. I think that something is revealed in another Globe and Mail report on Bill C-11. The report covers these latest Senate developments and reveals that two other Liberal MPs on the Heritage committee, Michael Coteau and Tim Louis, also signed the Lobbyist Commissioner letter. Indeed, only Anthony Housefather refused (committee chair Hedy Fry would be unlikely to participate given her role as chair). As much as I have concerns with the conduct of MPs such as Chris Bittle, it seems incredibly unlikely that the Liberal MPs on the committee got together over the summer and independently decided to file a letter with the Lobbyist Commissioner seeking an investigation into a vocal critic of Bill C-11.
Rather, it is almost certainly the case that this was orchestrated by the office of Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez. And therein lies the real concern with the entire episode. The timing of the leak may “stink” (as one Senator said) and the Lobbyist Commissioner investigation itself may have gone nowhere, but the government secretly pursuing investigations of its critics in an effort to advance its legislative agenda is the real danger. In doing so, the witness intimidation is not about a single appearance before the Senate. It is about anyone who dares to speak out against the government as they have been effectively warned that officials will look for any opportunity to discredit them. That shameful conduct is intended to chill public participation and should – as Housefather rightly recognized – be rejected. It is sad to see the four Liberal MPs fail to recognize the harms that come with these tactics and while Rodriguez’s office has continued to strategically leak, investigating critics in this manner should be a non-starter and merits real consequences for those that developed and supported the strategy.