OTTAWA - Public Works and Government Services Canada laid out the welcome mat for two companies from Christian Paradis' Quebec riding at the minister's behest, a practice that raised concerns with the federal ethics watchdog and spurred change inside the department.
In 2009, when Paradis was Public Works minister, he directed bureaucrats to set up meetings with two firms from Thetford Mines, Que., that were promoting their products — Thermo Pieux and Pultrall.
One of those meetings took place in the minister's boardroom with about a dozen bureaucrats from Public Works and from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The planning involved civil servants up to the deputy minister's office.
That was the same year Paradis got a meeting set up for former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer's company — a move that Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson said amounted to preferential treatment for a friend and broke the rules.
In that March report, Dawson briefly referred to the meetings with the two Quebec companies for context. Documents about the meetings were released to The Canadian Press last week under the Access to Information Act.
Dawson reiterated Friday that although ministers are MPs and should represent their constituents, there are limits.
"Ministers must ensure that they do not give preference to their constituents in their roles as Ministers that would not be available to any other Canadian," Dawson said in an email.
"Ministers have to represent all Canadians in that role."
Public Works said Saturday that action had been taken to address situations where the minister wants civil servants to meet with companies from the local riding, but didn't elaborate.
"Policies and procedures on this matter have been communicated to staff through training initiatives," said an emailed statement.
The department also said it introduced guidelines for meetings in 2011, which includes a section on what to do if the minister requests a meeting with a third-party. Public Works also developed an "organizational code of conduct" in 2012, which features "ethical scenarios," but it did not provide a copy of that document.
Email traffic shows that when bureaucrats first got the edict from Paradis' office to hold a meeting with Pultrall, they suggested the company simply attend a seminar offered close to the riding on how to do business with the government. Pultrall manufactures composite materials for construction.
But Paradis' office rejected that idea, and asked for the meetings to be held in the Ottawa area, specifically naming ten bureaucrats it wanted to attend the meeting with Pultrall in April 2009.
At one point, an employee in the deputy minister's office raised a red flag.
"There is no need to have 15 representatives at this meeting," wrote the bureaucrat.
"The DM would not see this as the best use of their time."
But in the end, about a dozen bureaucrats attended the meeting from across Public Works and even a pair from Foreign Affairs.
"MO (the minister's office) was pleased," an adviser to the deputy minister wrote to colleagues after the meeting had taken place.
When asked if it was common practice for firms to meet inside the minister's board room, Public Works said, "Yes, it is the role of public servants to give honest and impartial advice and ensure that information is available to ministers, whenever and wherever required."
The department did not respond directly to a question about whether any Canadian company could request and receive a meeting with a variety of bureaucrats.
The second firm from Paradis' riding, foundation pipe supplier Thermo Pieux, landed a meeting in the deputy minister's boardroom in September 2009.
Emails suggest eight civil servants attended, including a political staffer from Paradis' office.
A senior bureaucrat told the ethics commissioner that normally staff are discouraged from meeting with businesspeople.
"She is concerned about the perception of favouritism that could result from the department meeting with a particular company in a way that may not appear open, fair and transparent," Dawson wrote in her March report.
Paradis' office underlines that the meetings occurred three years ago and had been addressed in Dawson's report.
"I have always worked in the best interest of all Canadians, regardless of their location or affiliation," Paradis said in a statement emailed Saturday.
NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said it's fine to meet constituents in the riding and tell them who they need to talk to so they can set up the meetings on their own.
"But when the minister invites them into his boardroom and then calls in the senior government officials who are called off of other important work to come and listen to the pitch, then that's again backroom access that other businessses, that other Canadians, wouldn't get," said Angus.
Francois Nadeau, one of the participants from Thermo Pieux (also called Techno Pieux), said they did not succeed in developing any contracts following the September 2009 meeting. Public Works had already awarded the firm a $16,464-contract six months earlier.
A year before that, Paradis announced a $100,000-repayable loan to build up subsidiary Techno Metal Services.
The general manager of Pultrall, Bernard Drouin, did not return a call. Pultrall received a $104,000-award from the National Research Council in 2011. Prior to that, Paradis had announced in 2008 a $300,000 repayable loan to the firm.