The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage conducted a long-overdue hearing yesterday on the department’s funding of Laith Marouf, a known antisemite, as part of its anti-hate program. The hearing, which was held almost seven months after the issue began to attract to public attention, featured departmental officials answering questions from MPs seeking to understand how this could have occurred. While most of the discussion emphasized fixing the grant approval process to ensure this doesn’t happen again, that framing misses that there were at least two failures: a process failure that led to the approval and a response failure once officials knew or ought to have known about the process failure. The process failure, including the lack of due diligence, can be addressed by fixing the systems and engaging in greater antisemitism education. But response failure is harder to address since it requires accountability from the department and its ministers that has thus far been absent.
This was the third time the issue was the subject of questions at committee. Minister Ahmed Hussen appeared back in October, offering evasive answers and wasting as much time as he could. Minister Pablo Rodriguez declined to appear on the issue before committee, but was asked questions on it when he appeared on Bill C-18. He implausibly claimed that he was never informed about the issue and only learned about it in the media. Yesterday’s hearing with department officials was originally scheduled for two hours, was inexplicably cut back to an hour days before the hearing, but then extended back to just over 90 minutes as MPs unanimously approved extending the questioning. Chair Hedy Fry, once again demonstrating the problems of chairing committee meetings via Zoom, experienced technical difficulties that resulted in an early end to the proceedings. MPs from all four parties were genuinely engaged on the issue, clearly troubled by the situation, and seemingly left unsatisfied with some of what they heard. The hearing was an example of how MPs can put politics to the side in an effort to demand answers. It is a shame it does not happen more often.
The department unsurprisingly offered up a statement condemning antisemitism and apologizing for its repeated failures. Indeed, there was no defending the absence of due diligence or the failure to respond quickly once the concern came to light. However, there was also no real accountability. When Liberal MP Anthony Housefather asked about accountability for errors, he was met with a non-answer that did not point to any specific consequences for those who had failed to do their jobs properly.
Further, the department responses made it clear the issue was handled in an even worse manner than might have been imagined. Minister Hussen was informed about the issue on July 19th, but did not bother to alert the department until a week later. Once notified, the department did not do anything for another week. There was a notification to Marouf to suspend the contract on August 19th and it was formally suspended on September 23rd. It is hard to imagine that a similar issue involving other vulnerable groups would be left to linger for weeks without a response.
The evidence at committee indicated that the legal contract used in the anti-hate program was poorly drafted with Housefather left in disbelief when officials claimed there was no clause to permit immediate termination under exceptional circumstances. Instead, the department took a month to figure out its legal options and then gave Marouf another month notice that it was going to terminate.
The failures on the communications side of the issue left MPs stunned. The department confirmed that it did no due diligence on Marouf, relying instead on a prior review of his organization, the Community Media Advocacy Centre. When the Minister provided a supportive quote in a press release alongside Marouf in April 2022, there was again no due diligence. There is no rational explanation for how a department that employs roughly 100 staffers on communications could miss this.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently sought to downplay a potential conflict involving Minister Hussen by pointing to the importance of communications. Yet the government often seems uninterested in communicating. Rather than communicating, which typically involves an exchange of views, the mandate is to pump out carefully crafted talking points with no engagement or effort to monitor what Canadians actually think or are saying about their government and its policies. How else to explain Rodriguez’s claim that he did not know anything until he read about it in the media or the department’s claim that it did not know about any of these issues despite numerous tweets directed its way well before Housefather directly intervened with the Minister’s office.
These claims that no one knew are not credible. There is no way that the department and the minister’s office do not monitor daily press and social media clippings. I know they do as I’ve seen the clipping reports, which occasional appear in ATIP requests. Someone – likely many people – had to be aware of the Marouf situation for months before it became an issue this summer. They presumably decided it did not matter or was not worthy of addressing. Sadly, that conduct was effectively mirrored by Hussen sitting on the issue for days, Rodriguez refusal to release a public statement or respond to a request for a copy of a private statement provided to Canadian Press, and Parliamentary Secretary Chris Bittle suggesting concerns I raised about the issue were rooted in racism.
Watching the Marouf hearings left me with a gnawing sense that something was missing. The issue has been framed as a process failure with promises to improve funding reviews so that this does not happen again. That there was a process failure exemplified by the lack of due diligence and the poorly drafted legal agreements is beyond doubt. But these hearings have demonstrated that there was also a response failure once officials knew or ought to have known that it had funded an anti-semite in its anti-hate program. It is the failure of communications staffers, who likely viewed the antisemitism as low-risk to the government and therefore ignored it. It is the failure of Hussen and the department to respond without delay, of Bittle to respond to criticism with false and damaging allegations, of Rodriguez to hide his response, and of many MPs who failed to respond at all. These failures will not be fixed by better approval processes and require more than just apologies. They require accountability. Thus far, Canadian Heritage, the ministers, and the government have offered none.