OTTAWA — Newly released documents suggest the office of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander intervened to save bureaucrats from answering part of a formal question from an NPD MP about wait times for visa applications.
NDP immigration critic Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe submitted an order paper question, which is like an access-to-information request for MPs, about the budget and processing times for applications for temporary and permanent residents.
The department provided information in response to some parts of the question — mostly by linking to details already available on its website — but said they would not be able to break down wait times for applications by fiscal year and processing centre.
“The remaining information requested in the question and subquestions would require an extensive manual search of Citizenship and Immigration Canada records. After a lengthy data extraction process involving millions of files, the report would have to be reviewed in its entirety to ensure that the data is accurate and valid. Providing full and accurate information within the prescribed timeline is therefore not feasible,” said the response tabled in the Commons on May 14 last year.
Documents released in response to an access-to-information request filed by the NDP suggest that answer came after Alexander’s office weighed in.
The documents provided to the Star by the NDP show departmental officials had been working on answering that part of the order paper question, although they did express concern they would not meet the May 14 deadline.
A minister must respond to an order paper question regarding his or her portfolio within 45 days.
The emails have officials describing the “enormity of the request,” estimating it would involve some 16 million records.
The emails also say the team tasked with crunching these numbers had to keep putting it aside to work on “high-priority requests to respond to public discussion and interdepartmental analysis around the (temporary foreign workers) file.”
Relief came when an official wrote on May 2: “You can hold this work — MINO (minister’s office) has come back to advise ADMO (office of the assistant deputy minister for operations) that we will use the same response we provided to Q-359.”
That was an order paper question about processing times submitted by Liberal immigration critic John McCallum, which was almost identical to the part of the question from Blanchette-Lamothe officials were scrambling to answer in time.
The response Alexander provided in the Commons last May 12 — there was no accompanying paperwork — is nearly verbatim to the response Blanchette-Lamothe received in writing two days later, although it also refers to “an excessive number of taxpayer-funded man-hours.”
A spokesman for Alexander said that was appropriate.
“It was at the advice of the department that we took the chosen approach. The questions posed by both Mr. McCallum and Ms. Blanchette-Lamothe were detailed, multi-part questions which could not be answered within the prescribed time frame. The answer to this (order paper question) reflects the advice of (Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s) professional, non partisan public servants,” Kevin Menard wrote in an emailed statement Friday.
But NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus questioned the motives
“Sometimes these are complex questions, but it’s because there are very few tools available to parliamentarians to get answers,” Angus said Friday.
“I think that is a disturbing trend and it will certainly be used by this government in the future if this is allowed to stand to shut down questions that are politically uncomfortable for them,” Angus said.