Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Opposition parties are poised to approve a parliamentary probe of the Trudeau government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic despite growing objections from industry and experts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Liberals face probe into pandemic response after losing House vote

Liberals face probe into pandemic response after losing House vote

OTTAWA — Opposition parties won their bid Monday to launch a probe of the Liberals’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic following a week of parliamentary turbulence over how to review their management of the crisis.

MPs from all four opposition parties voted to pass a motion that orders the Trudeau government to turn over to the House of Commons health committee all records on a raft of issues related to the coronavirus response.

That includes how they have gone about procuring rapid tests for COVID-19, vaccine development and the availability of personal protective equipment.

The move by Conservative, Bloc Québécois, New Democrat and Green MPs, plus one Independent, comes five days after the government survived a confidence vote on a previous Conservative motion to create a special committee to investigate the WE Charity affair and other alleged examples of corruption.

Monday’s motion zooms out from the WE controversy to focus more broadly on Ottawa’s reaction to COVID-19, but the probe can still examine documents tied to the embattled charity.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said in a statement the 35-day time frame to hand over requested documents — extended from the 15 days originally proposed — was reasonable.

“Liberal MPs should have had no problem supporting our motion,” he said.

“Canada’s place in the vaccine queue shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Improving our pandemic response shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez agreed, but argued that clearing the way for an effective response means assigning new tasks to public servants already overloaded with work.

“They’re asking tons of documents (from) … the same public servants that are working day and night to help Canadians,” Rodriguez said, expressing hope the opposition “stops playing politics” with the issue.

Earlier Monday, Procurement Minister Anita Anand warned an investigation would jeopardize federal contracts for personal protective equipment, vaccines and rapid test kits.

She said it could trigger the release of commercially sensitive information, scaring off manufacturers and drug companies that would otherwise do business with Ottawa.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner, who penned the sweeping motion, called Anand’s remarks “hyperbolic” and “complete garbage,” given the carve-outs for matters of national security, personal privacy and commercial sensitivities.

The Conservatives also accused the Liberals of trying to trigger an election, though the government followed through on its pledge not to treat the motion as a confidence matter.

The stakes were markedly lower than last week, when a Conservative motion to have a special committee probe alleged ethical breaches by the Liberals was defeated a confidence vote that corralled the New Democrats into backing the Liberals to avoid sending Canadians to the polls.

Pfizer Canada was the latest company to express concerns about the health committee probe, asking how the pharmaceutical giant’s commercial secrets will be protected and what process will be used to vet sensitive information before it is released to the health committee.

In a letter to a senior Health Canada official obtained by The Canadian Press, Pfizer Canada president Cole Pinnow said 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.

Pfizer’s concerns about the proposed probe reflect those raised in recent days by other industry players, including Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, which represents thousands of companies in Canada.

Anand cautioned 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 said the government was “proactively calling pharmaceutical companies and fearmongering” over the weekend.

The role of the law clerk, whom she said the Liberals were “attacking,” is precisely to ensure that sensitive information is not released unduly, Rempel Garner said.

The New Democrats and Bloc Québécois have insisted there is sufficient protection for industry while accusing the Liberals of stoking fears.

Separately 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 over 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.

Multiple members of the Trudeau family, particularly the prime minister’s mother and brother, have been paid fees to appear at events for the charity launched by Toronto’s Craig and Marc Kielburger.

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.

Opposition parties have accused Liberal MPs of filibustering in the preceding weeks to prevent the ethics committee from obtaining documents that detail the speaking fees.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2020.

— With files from Joan Bryden and Jordan Press.

Christopher Reynolds and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press