The faux citizenship "reaffirmation" ceremony staged on Sun TV last fall is still rippling through Canada's political waters.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenny's office ordered department officials to co-operate with the upstart right-wing news channel to stage the in-studio oath-taking after Sun TV declined to cover any of the scheduled Toronto-area ceremonies during last October's citizenship week.
But when most of the ten new Canadians invited to take the reaffirmation oath failed to show up, six department bureaucrats were conscripted to stand in for them while a citizenship judge performed the ceremony. The show hosts then congratulated them on finally becoming Canadians.
Details of the deception were exposed by Canadian Press reporter Jennifer Ditchburn via emails she obtained under federal Access-to-Information legislation.
The incident prompted an apology from Kenny, who laid the blame on subordinates.
Now Ditchburn reports that in setting up the fake event, Kenny's officials may have violated privacy laws through its use of personal information of hundreds of new Canadians.
In trying to round up 10 new citizens to take part in the reaffirmation ceremony, department staff in Toronto accessed citizenship files to call "clients."
"The records suggest that names were provided to communications staff of the department who do not process citizenship applications," Ditchburn reports.
Emails Ditchburn obtained reveal communications staff contacting potential invitees reported that those who bothered calling back mostly declined the event.
"Those that we did get a hold of were not interested because they have to work," one supervisor wrote. "At this rate, we would have to call 3,000 to find 10."
Ottawa lawyer Michel Drapeau, who specializes in access-to-information and privacy issues, told The Canadian Press that officials appeared to have breached the Privacy Act.
Personal information under the control of a government institution should not be used "except for the purpose for which the information was obtained or compiled by the institution or for a use consistent with that purpose," Drapeau said.
There are exceptions, he said, but none relate to promotional or media activities.
"In this case, when I see it, anybody and everybody who submitted their information to the government of Canada to become a Canadian citizen did not say 'You can use this information to use me as a political prop or an advertising prop or whatever else it is'," said Drapeau.
Privacy expert Valerie Steeves of the University of Ottawa said the ceremony might fall into a grey area because it's inherently a public act.
"I might not be too happy if they called and I'd have the right to say no, but it seems to me that my status of citizen is still a matter of publicity," she said.
Kenny spokeswoman Candice Malcolm said all privacy laws were followed in setting up the ceremony.
In an interview with The Hill Times, which covers Ottawa politics, Ditchburn said she began digging for information after watching the unusual in-studio ceremony on Sun TV.
"I knew it sort of had interesting elements, it was unusual, it was televised, and there was an element of the bizarre and unusual which always makes for interesting news, but no, I didn't anticipate that it was going to explode like it did," the veteran political reporter said.
The story exploded. It was picked up by a number of U.S. media outlets and triggered a wave of comment on social media.
Sun TV hosts Krista Erickson and Brian Lilley dismissed it as a "drive-by smear," and right-wing journalist Ezra Levant, who also has a show on Sun TV, got into a Twitter spat with Ditchburn.
He accused Ditchburn of collaborating with the CBC to produce the story and of having a conflict of interest because she appears regularly as a paid panelist commenting on politics. The public broadcaster is a favourite target for Quebecor, which owns Sun TV and the Sun newspaper chain.
"Come on my show to make your case," Levant tweeted. "I'll give you the last word. But sorry, unlike the govt broadcaster, we can't pay you."
"It's been a slice Ezra! Keep on rockin' in the free world," concluded Ditchburn, who said she's sloughed off similar attacks.