Canadian Heritage minister, top bureaucrats deny 'cozy' relationship between department and Facebook Canada

Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault testifies via videoconference before the House of Commons heritage committee on Friday, January 29, 2021.

OTTAWA – The minister and top bureaucrats responsible for Canadian Heritage say there was nothing wrong with how Facebook Canada’s head of public policy reached out to an official at the department — which is co-leading efforts to regulate Internet giants — to share a job posting for a policy worker.

“We came to a conclusion that sharing publicly available information is not a reprehensible act. I would also add that we are taking at heart issues regarding values and ethics… and I am very confident that my staff are meeting the highest standard with respect to conflict of interest and values and ethics,” Canadian Heritage Deputy Minister Hélène Laurendeau told members of the Heritage committee Friday.

The minister in charge of the department, Steven Guilbeault, expressed a similar point of view, all the while taking umbrage against critiques from opposition MPs that Facebook and the department have a “cozy” relationship.

“Did it violate any code of ethics? The answer is no. How many times did it happen in the last year? Once. I take issue with the fact that we would question the ethical value of our civil service in Canada based on something that’s simply not there,” Guilbeault added after Laurendeau.

“There is no coziness, plain and simple.”

Guilbeault was the first to testify during a new study of the relationship between Facebook and the federal government by the Canadian Heritage committee, as requested by the NDP.

The issue is of concern to opposition parties as Heritage Canada is currently co-leading efforts to create new legislation that will regulate a host of web companies’ activities (such as Facebook’s), including managing online hate speech and taxing their digital products and services.

Questioned by opposition MPs as to when the legislation will finally be tabled in Parliament, Guilbeault did not give a more precise answer than “this spring.”

“Like many Canadians, our government is concerned about the current imbalance that favours the web giants at the expense of Canadian businesses,” Guilbeault said in his opening remarks. “The economic and social stakes resulting from the situation are too important for us to just stand idly by.”

“Our government is committed to regulating digital platforms and putting them to work for Canadians,” he added.

The study was requested by opposition parties following media reports that Facebook’s Canadian Head of Policy Kevin Chan had emailed a senior official at Canadian Heritage in early 2020 inquiring about a “promising senior analyst” within the public service that Facebook could hire.

A copy of the emails was obtained via access to information and first reported by Toronto Star.

In his message to heritage department official Owen Ripley, Chan, who previously held top senior advisory roles in the federal government, said that the web giant was offering a “challenging,” “fascinating” and lucrative job within Facebook’s public policy team.

Chan added that he was open to hiring public servants who took a temporary leave of absence from their department to come work for Facebook. That means that they could later return to their public sector jobs if the department allowed it.

“I am happy to circulate to a few people who might be good candidates,” replied Ripley, who holds the title of director general, broadcasting, copyright & creative marketplace at Canadian Heritage.

In front of committee members Friday, Chan said that neither he nor Facebook had done anything wrong by sending out that email.

“The facts are the following: the job was publicly listed and openly advertised on the Facebook careers site, shared widely on social media and with a broad set of public policy professionals in the private, non-profit and public sectors,” he told MPs.

Rachel Curran, the former director of policy for Prime Minister Stephen Harper who was eventually hired for the policy job at Facebook Canada, added that it’s normal for a company to cast a wide net when hiring for such a job.

“The public policy talent pool in Canada is quite small,” Curran explained. “It’s quite common for job postings to be circulated widely in the private sector, the public sector, and among government employees.”

Still, both opposition members and media advocacy groups such as Friends of Canadian Broadcasting weren’t convinced by Guilbeault, Facebook or Heritage Canada’s explanations.

“We’re concerned when we see a personal email from Kevin Chan to one of your employees in the department. This is too cozy, and as opposition members, we’re concerned with this,” Conservative MP Kevin Waugh insisted.

Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux said he was surprised that Guilbeault did not sound concerned by the emails between Facebook and his department.

“You do not sound like you think this is a grave matter. Do you not find it to be a preoccupying situation?” the MP asked.

Guilbeault responded that he had inquired about the situation with the head of the department soon after media reports emerged and he was reassured when told that there had been no ethical breaches.

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques