The federal Conservatives are calling for an investigation into the Liberal government's commercial rent relief program to find out why it could not be delivered by the public service — and how it came to be contracted out to a company with ties to a top PMO staffer.
"What we want to find out is why this multi-billion-dollar program was hived off from the public service, given to a Crown corporation that couldn't run it and therefore subcontracted to a company that has, as its senior VP, the spouse of the prime minister's Chief of Staff," said Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre during a news conference Sunday.
The Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program is Ottawa's rent subsidy program for small businesses that have lost 70 per cent or more of their revenue due to the pandemic. Eligible businesses pay 25 per cent of their rent, while provinces, territories, the federal government and landlords cover the remaining costs.
The program — which was extended into August late last month — has been criticized for its low uptake, restrictive eligibility criteria and for not being extended until the end of the year.
According to an Aug. 5 survey from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, 55 per cent of members surveyed said improving access to the program should be a priority for the federal government.
WATCH | Conservatives question decision to contract out rent relief program:
Poilievre seeking finance committee, lobbying watchdog investigations
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a federal Crown corporation, subcontracted the delivery of the program to Canadian mortgage financing company MCAP on May 15. A senior director at that company is Robert Silver, who is married to Trudeau's Chief of Staff Katie Telford.
"Conservatives today are calling for the finance committee to examine why this program was directed through an unrelated Crown corporation — and ultimately to this company — and two, we are asking the lobbying commissioner to ascertain if either the company...or Mr. Silver should have registered their lobbying activities and whether they did so," Poilievre said.
The finance critic has argued that the Canada Revenue Agency would be better positioned to deliver the program given that it is already responsible for administering the federal government's emergency wage subsidy.
In a statement to CBC News, CMHC said it contracted out the rent relief program because it "did not have the internal capacity" to deliver it. The corporation said Silver took part in one meeting with its staff to discuss program uptake numbers, but that he had not otherwise been involved in the delivery of the program.
Poilievre said his party wants "all of the players involved" in the contract to testify before the House of Commons finance committee.
"That would include Mr. Silver, it could include Ms. Telford and it will almost certainly include CMHC," he said.
CMHC says it will appear at the committee if called to do so.
NDP finance critic Peter Julian says his party has similar questions about the rollout of the program and says he plans to call on Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion to investigate.
No wrongdoing on Telford's behalf, PMO says
The National Post first reported Friday that the Trudeau government was paying up to $84 million to the company where Telford's husband works in order to deliver the rent relief program.
But the PMO says that when Silver first assumed his new role at MCAP, Telford moved quickly to set up a conflict of interest screen.
According to two emails posted to Twitter by Trudeau's communications director Cameron Ahmad, Trudeau's top political aide set up the screen "voluntarily" back in January. The emails indicate that she did so "out of an abundance of caution", even though the office of Canada's federal ethics watchdog advised that putting one in place was not required.
"This screen applies to anything related to MCAP and it has been diligently followed since it was implemented," the PMO told CBC News in a statement on Sunday. "Ms. Telford has not been involved in any discussions related to MCAP."
Poilievre: link between WE controversy, rent relief program
Poilievre said the central issue behind the rent relief program — that it could have been administered through the public service — bore similarities to the Trudeau government's decision to task the WE Charity with delivering the Canada Student Service Grant.
The investigation into the WE controversy continues this week, with Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Small Business Minister Mary Ng scheduled to appear before the House of Commons finance committee on Wednesday.
WATCH | Poilievre links WE controversy and rent relief program:
Last month, the committee requested a trove of documents connected to the decision, a demand Poilievre said is in the process of being fulfilled.
"The government has shared some documents with the public servants at the finance committee, but they are being vetted to make sure that no cabinet confidences or personal information is included," he said.
The documents requested include information about staffers, meetings, correspondence and memos related to the creation of the grant.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is currently investigating the prime minister and Finance Minister Bill Morneau for possible violations of the Conflict of Interest Act due to their personal ties to the WE organization.