OTTAWA â€” A federal government agency that gave money to a think tank with close ties to the Liberals says the attention it received has made it think carefully about how it collaborates with outside organizations.
“It’s certainly helped us to focus on systems â€” internal systems â€” to make sure these kinds of partnerships are the right ones for us,” Christopher Walters, director of communications for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), said in an interview last week.
The federal granting agency signed an agreement last year giving Canada 2020, a not-for-profit organization founded by long-time Liberal partisans, a total of $20,000, according to recently released documents.
Seventy-five per cent of that money went to sponsor an innovation conference Canada 2020 hosted at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa from Nov. 2 to 4, 2016, featuring three Liberal cabinet ministers. The remaining $5,000 went towards a series of roundtables on open government.
Emails and other documents released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act raise questions about what the granting agency was hoping to get out of working with Canada 2020, which styles itself as an independent think tank developing progressive ideas and policies, but whose people are closely linked with the Liberals and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Science Minister Kirsty Duncan confirmed the $15,000 sponsorship earlier this year, prompting the Conservatives to ask why federal tax dollars were going to an organization whose president, Tom Pitfield, has been friends with Trudeau since childhood and played a key role in the 2015 Liberal election campaign. He is also married to Anna Gainey, the Liberal party president.
“There’s great concerns about the cozy relationship that Canada 2020 has with the Liberal government,” Conservative MP Blaine Calkins said Monday.
Canada 2020 declined to answer questions for this story.
According to the emails, the agency, which funds social science and humanities research, and Canada 2020 had worked together on a number of occasions throughout last year.
Then, on Oct. 7, less than a month before the innovation conference was set to take place, someone from Canada 2020 emailed Ursula Gobel, associate vice-president at SSHRC, to ask if they would be interested in sponsoring the event.
Ten days later, Gobel asked her contact at Canada 2020, whose name has been redacted, for a copy of the program for the conference. She also attached a draft funding agreement.
“(I) will need further details on the program before signing,” she wrote.
That agreement states both the agency and Canada 2020 “agree to collaborate on the development and holding” of the innovation conference.
But by this time, the agenda was mostly complete.
Canada 2020 emailed the draft agenda on Oct. 20, saying there were a few more tweaks expected before it would go live four days later.
“We can’t confirm our support until we see opportunities for a social sciences and humanities dimension in the program,” Gobel replied.
Another email suggests they arranged to speak by telephone the next morning.
The primary change to the program, according to Walters, was that Gobel ended up introducing a panel on jobs, skills and the future of work, which is a priority theme for the agency.
Walters pointed to four other speakers at the conference who do research in the social sciences and the humanities, but they were already in the earlier version of the program.
“I don’t know the ins and outs of the negotiations,” said Walters. “I know that in the end, SSHRC was satisfied that social science and humanities research would be represented at this conference and Ms. Gobel introduced the panel, so that was the visibility and profile we were looking for,” said Walters.
Meanwhile, someone else at SSHRC appears to have had some questions about the overall approach.
On Oct. 11, Brent Herbert-Copley, the executive vice-president, wrote to Walters about the sponsorship possibility: “Where do we stand in terms of the document outlining our overall support to events like this?” he asked, adding that he would like to have a “broader discussion” about the “process going forward for decisions on event partnerships.”
Walters said SSHRC thought it would be a good idea to start tracking partnerships with outside organizations in a way that would let the agency see if they were working in terms of “overall balance.” Walters said that idea had come up before the Canada 2020 partnership, but confirmed the list was developed afterwards.
Emails from earlier last year suggest SSHRC saw another benefit to participating in Canada 2020 events, in that it gave them the opportunity to share their message with high-level government officials, including cabinet ministers and Matthew Mendelsohn, deputy secretary to the cabinet.
Walters said the role social science and humanities researchers can play in shaping policy is often overlooked.
“Making contacts with key government figures is important to help get that word out,” said Walters.
“When an opportunity comes along, you want to take it.”
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Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press