OTTAWA - Opposition MPs were dropped from the guest list for an awards ceremony honouring volunteers from across the country, an event that some had worried would become political.
The Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards were given out Dec. 14 in the historic Railway Room on Parliament Hill. Stephen Harper himself delivered remarks, and had his photo taken with each of the 16 recipients of the new award.
The Human Resources and Skills Development Department had done most of the legwork leading up to the ceremony, including the development of a guest list.
Five NDP and two Liberal MPs were listed as guests in lists drawn up by the department as late as Nov. 15. The MPs were suggested because constituents from their ridings were to receive awards.
Documents about the ceremony were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
But on the day of the event, only the Conservative ministers and MPs on the list attended alongside volunteers and their families. An assistant to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley sent a list of the Tories to the department the day before.
Toronto-area New Democrat MP Andrew Cash's name also appeared on the original list, but he says he was not invited. Cash said he's familiar with the work of the Child Development Institute in his riding that received the award.
"The prime minister is taking what really should be a non-partisan awards ceremony and something that all Canadians could get behind, and turn it into a Conservative-only event," said Cash, MP for Davenport.
"That's really disappointing."
Newfoundland Liberal MP Scott Simms said he never received an invite, but the group from his riding — the Exploits Valley Community Coalition — asked him to attend a local ceremony weeks later.
"For MPs, we do a lot of MPs' work with the local volunteer associations. They're the ties that bind, as it were," said Simms.
"When they put in a lot of hours, their local MP should be there to acknowledge any award they get. It seems only fair."
Marian Ngo, a spokeswoman for Finley, noted the event took place on Parliament Hill and was advertised through a public notice.
"Members of Parliament from any party were welcome and able to attend," Ngo said in an email.
As to how opposition MPs would have known who won the awards, Ngo said the recipients "were free to notify their MPs."
The department had also suggested names for potential masters of ceremony, including organ-donor activist Helene Campbell or sportscaster Brian Williams. But ultimately it was Conservative Senator and philanthropist Nicole Eaton who took the reins.
The name of the honours, "The Prime Minister's Volunteer Awards," had raised flags early on in their development as too political. A government commissioned focus group in 2010 reported that participants felt the association with the prime minister might be "perceived as political in nature." The focus group included members of non-profit organizations.
The nomination process for the awards remains partially secret. In documents recently released to The Canadian Press, the government blacked out the names of "regional reviewers" who were to send the names of potential recipients to a national advisory committee.
Opposition MPs have complained over the years that the Conservatives have deliberately left them out of government events taking place in their ridings. NDP MP Pat Martin ranted on Twitter about the practice in December, a tirade that eventually forced him to abandon that social media account.