OTTAWA — A not-for-profit think-tank founded by Liberals with close personal ties to Justin Trudeau is trying to insulate itself from the cash-for-access inferno that is scorching the federal government.
Canada 2020 recently introduced a new donor agreement that must be signed by any company or group that gives it money, making it clear that the donation won't buy access to the prime minister, his cabinet ministers or anyone else who attends the organization's events.
It has also recently implemented a new policy prohibiting active lobbyists from sitting on its board of directors.
Trudeau has attended at least three events organized by Canada 2020 — two exclusive events with the prime minister during his first official visit to Washington last March and an "after party" last June at a swank Ottawa restaurant following the North American Leaders' Summit.
His cabinet ministers are also regular attendees and speakers at Canada 2020's policy conferences and related receptions.
The think-tank relies on contributions from companies, unions, trade associations, lobbying firms and others — what it calls "sustaining partners," including TD Bank, Manulife, Suncor, Enbridge, RioTinto, Telus and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, many of whom lobby the federal government — to finance its day-to-day operations. And it also relies on sponsors to help finance specific conferences and other events.
Canada 2020 spokesman Alex Paterson refused to disclose how much money such partners and sponsors pay and, as a not-for-profit organization, the think-tank is not obligated to make its financial statements public. But attendees at past events privately say a contribution can run to tens of thousands of dollars.
Paterson confirmed that donors are entitled to attend Canada 2020 events to which they've contributed — where they could easily wind up rubbing shoulders with cabinet ministers or even Trudeau himself. But he said the organization has taken steps to ensure donors understand what they're paying for.
"In accepting that (financial) support, our job is to be clear about what that does and does not entail," he said in an email exchange with The Canadian Press.
"We have recently introduced a strict donor agreement which makes clear the limits of partnership."
The agreement spells out that the contribution is "not intended, directly or indirectly, as a means to gain access to, or obtain an audience with, any speaker, attendee or any other person at or connected with any program or event hosted or arranged by or on behalf of Canada 2020."
Canada 2020 bills itself as "Canada's leading, independent, progressive think-tank," but it is closely connected with the Liberals and Trudeau personally.
Its president is Tom Pitfield, a childhood friend of Trudeau's who was the Liberals' chief digital strategist during last year's election campaign. He is married to Anna Gainey, president of the Liberal Party of Canada. The couple was photographed last summer vacationing with the Trudeau family in Tofino, B.C.
The think-tank was founded 10 years ago, when the Liberals were in opposition, by Pitfield and three other longtime Grits: Eugene Lang, Susan Smith and Tim Barber. Smith and Barber are principals at the lobbying firm Bluesky Strategy Group, which is also one of Canada 2020's donor partners.
In accordance with Canada 2020's new policy, Smith, a registered lobbyist, recently left the think-tank's board of directors. Barber, who does "no registerable lobbying," remains on the board.
Lang has not been involved with the think-tank or Bluesky, for which he once worked with, since the spring of 2013.
The think tank's website and social media feeds are replete with copious photos of event attendees — including Smith and Pitfield — chatting or posing with Trudeau and various ministers.
Following Canada 2020's events in Washington, the Conservatives accused the government of helping its lobbyist friends and offering access to the prime minister in return for donations — the same accusation now being levelled over so-called "cash-for-access" Liberal fundraising events that feature Trudeau or some of his ministers. The Tories asked both the federal ethics and lobbying commissioners to investigate the matter.
Paterson said both watchdogs "agreed there was no issue and did not pursue the Conservative opposition's complaint."
Smith is currently registered to lobby a number of federal departments, including the Prime Minister's Office, on behalf of clients who include at least one Canada 2020 sponsor, Suncor, and others who've attended or participated in the think tank's events.
One of Smith's clients, Actua, an Ottawa-based charity that promotes youth engagement in science, provides one example of how close the ties are between Bluesky and Canada 2020.
In June, Actua president Jennifer Flanagan was invited to attend the exclusive after-party hosted by Canada 2020 to celebrate the end of Trudeau's summit with U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Trudeau and numerous ministers attended the party, including Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu, for whose department Smith is registered to lobby on Actua's behalf.
Also in attendance was Small Business Minister Bardish Chagger's chief of staff, Rachel Bendayan. According to the lobbyist registry, Smith had met Bendayan earlier that month to discuss employment, training, science and technology on behalf of Actua.
Flanagan, who has participated in a number of Canada 2020 conferences over the years, said she was invited to the party by the think tank. Actua's spokeswoman, Kristina Martin, also attended and said she and Flanagan didn't know who would be at the party, which she described as a "large social event."
Asked if Flanagan spoke to any ministers or MPs about Actua, Martin said in an email: "As the CEO of a national charitable organization, Jennifer, like anyone in conversation at any event, will naturally speak about where she works."
Registered lobbyists are required to file monthly reports on "oral and arranged communications" with designated public office holders, which includes ministers, MPs, senators, staffers and bureaucrats.
But Smith, who filed no such report on the after-party, said she does no lobbying at Canada 2020 events.
"Certainly, if I'm at a Canada 2020 event, I have a Canada 2020 hat on and that's it," she said in an interview, adding that the after-party was strictly a social occasion where it was impossible to predict who would show up.
"Canada 2020 follows the rules and Bluesky Strategy Group, like every other lobby firm in Ottawa, follows the rules. We can't be in business if we don't follow the rules and we take that very seriously."
If the Conservatives are now going to question the propriety of lobbyists attending Canada 2020 events or companies helping to sponsor them, Smith said the same logic would suggest every conference and social occasion in the country involving a minister would have to be shut down "for fear that somebody may speak to a cabinet minister in a casual conversation."
Tories should also explain why it was appropriate when the Conservatives were in power to have a number of ministers — John Baird, Lisa Raitt, Diane Finley and Jason Kenney among them — as featured speakers at the think tank's conferences, she added.