Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough’s office initially reacted with sarcasm to an article about how the federal government alerted Irving Shipbuilding that Postmedia was investigating problems with the country’s new Arctic patrol ships.
But federal bureaucrats quickly changed their tune after members of the public and opposition MPs took to social media to question the cozy relationship between the Liberals and Irving and denounce the company’s threat to sue Postmedia even before an article had been published, according to documents obtained under the Access to Information law.
Procurement Canada and the Department of National Defence alerted Irving on March 6 that Postmedia was asking questions about alleged weld problems on the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships being built by the firm for the Canadian Forces. Federal officials also provided to Irving personal information about the journalist asking questions.
Shortly after, Irving threatened Postmedia with a lawsuit if any defamatory article was published, even though no article about weld issues had originally been planned.
Instead Postmedia published an article about DND and Procurement Canada officials alerting Irving about the potential article while also confirming the departments had launched investigations into whether they had violated the privacy law.
Shortly after the article was published online on March 14, bureaucrats emailed Qualtrough’s communications director Ashley Michnowski the link to the story.
“Yurp,” Michnowski responded. “Saw that…wish I could send an eye roll emoji via blackberry.”
The next day attitudes shifted after Procurement Canada bureaucrats started becoming concerned that opposition members of Parliament were commenting on the issue, along with other media outlets.
The department’s public affairs official, Michele Larose, pointed out there were a growing number of tweets about the issue. “They just keep coming and they are not positive!”
The department’s parliamentary affairs branch was mobilized to write Qualtrough some responses to recite in the Commons if she was asked about the issue.
If asked about the violation of privacy laws in providing Irving with information about a Postmedia journalist, Qualtrough was told to respond that, “We take all privacy concerns very seriously.”
Asked to comment about the “eyeball roll” reference, Michnowski apologized Wednesday for the comment. “As the department has noted since March when the situation occurred, PSPC has reviewed their media protocols to ensure that we provide accurate information regarding ongoing projects with industry partners, while respecting journalist’s private information,” she noted in an email.
The documents provide an inside view on how Procurement Canada reacted to the initial questions about problems with welds.
Just 17 minutes after Postmedia submitted its questions to Procurement Canada’s media officials, 38 bureaucrats were given a “media heads up” the news chain was asking about problems with welds on the ships.
The documents, however, do not indicate who in Qualtrough’s office or the department alerted the Irvings.
While Procurement Canada didn’t respond to Postmedia’s questions, the DND did confirm there were minor issues with welds on the new ships.
Irving Shipbuilding President Kevin McCoy later told the Senate Finance Committee that federal officials had called the firm about Postmedia “making very wild accusations” about workmanship and other issues on the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships.
The news organization was threatened with legal action because “we were concerned about our reputation and the (government’s) shipbuilding strategy’s reputation,” McCoy told the senators.
But documents obtained from DND and Procurement Canada do not support McCoy’s claims. The internal records indicate that officials pointed out Postmedia was simply asking questions and trying to verify if there had indeed been weld problems.
In May, Irving threatened to sue the Globe and Mail newspaper after its journalists asked Innovation Canada to confirm that the firm received a $40 million industrial benefit credit related to the Arctic ships for a French fry factory in Alberta.
In that incident, the office of Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains alerted the Irvings that the newspaper was asking questions. Irving threatened to sue the Globe even before it had published an article.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development says it has a policy of alerting Irving if journalists are asking questions about the company’s industrial benefits obligations and the Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship program. But the department has not provided figures on how many times it has contacted Irving about journalists who are asking questions about the ship project.
In January 2015, the Canadian government announced a $2.6-billion contract to Irving Shipbuilding Inc. to build five ships, according to the government’s website. Two more ships were later added at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $800 million.