The controversial WE Charity says it is closing up some operations in Canada following months of scrutiny over its role in what’s become known as the WE Charity scandal.
However, that’s unlikely to impact the work underway by the federal ethics commissioner, and also by parliamentary committees currently probing how the group got a contract to run a multi-million-dollar student service grant program.
That’s because despite the closures, and even with former finance minister Bill Morneau now out of politics, the commissioner’s powers to probe what happened while he was a minister remain intact, as do the powers of parliamentary committees to investigate the controversy.
“While the announcement today pertaining to WE Charity is an interesting fact, it is not determinative of outcome,” said Melanie Rushworth, spokesperson for the ethics commissioner’s office.
“Commissioner Dion remains focused on the examinations underway.”
The conflict of interest commissioner’s powers come from the Conflict of Interest Act, which authorizes the commissioner to scrutinize and enforce that public office holders do not break conflict of interest laws.
The commissioner also does the same for members of Parliament under the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons.
Those rules give the commissioner broad authority to probe activities that may break the rules.
Specifically, the rules empower the commissioner to summon witnesses and require them to give evidence or produce any documents deemed necessary for the commissioner’s examination.
“This provision does not make any distinction among witnesses who are Members of the House of Commons or public office holders and external parties,” said a spokesperson for the ethics commissioner’s office, when asked whether the powers extend to private individuals or entities.
In the case of the commissioner’s ongoing probe of the WE Charity deal, he is looking specifically at the failure of Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to recuse themselves from discussions about giving the administration deal to the group.
All of that work continues.
What powers do committees have in WE Charity probe?
Prior to Trudeau proroguing Parliament last month, two parliamentary committees had also been conducting hearings into the controversy while two others were planning to do so.
While prorogation dissolved those committees, both the Conservatives and NDP have said they want to get the committees back up and running after a new session of Parliament opens on Sept. 23.
Parliamentary committees have extensive powers that go beyond the reach of just parliamentary affairs.
They have the power to summon witnesses on any matter they agree to study.
“In theory, it applies to any person on Canadian soil,” notes the rules of the House of Commons.
They can do that by issuing a summons and most recently used that power to summon Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the World Health Organization’s Dr. Bruce Aylward to answer questions on the pandemic.
Both individuals refused the requests and have faced no consequences since, though the summons are only enforceable on Canadian soil.
In practice, only the monarch, governors or lieutenants general, members of Parliament, senators and members of provincial legislatures are outside the bounds of a summons.
They can, however, appear voluntarily if invited by the committee, as Trudeau did earlier this summer
As well, committees can order the production of documents and other records, and there are effectively no limits in the standing orders governing committees on this power.
“The only prerequisite is that the papers exist in hard copy or electronic format, and that they are located in Canada,” states the rules of the House of Commons.
“They can be papers originating from or in the possession of governments, or papers the authors or owners of which are from the private sector or civil society (individuals, associations, organizations, et cetera).”
All of that means committees still have a lot of tools they can choose to use, and which apply in both the public and private spheres.
The tricky part comes down to enforcement: while committees can issue orders, they don’t actually have the power to discipline. For that, they need to go to the House of Commons.
If a person or entity refuses a committee order to appear or produce documents, that committee can pass a motion asking the House of Commons to vote on finding them in contempt of Parliament.
That happened in 2003 when a committee tried to compel evidence on beef prices from major beef processors that had repeatedly refused summons to appear and to provide varying degrees of documents. For that, the House of Commons found them guilty of contempt.
They did not impose any consequences though.
The options for discipline are usually fairly light: they can be barred from parliamentary buildings or given a formal reprimand, for example.
But the House of Commons does technically have “the right to confine individuals as a punishment for contempt” — although no one has been jailed specifically for contempt of Parliament since 1913.
That imprisonment, however, lasted four months.
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