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Liberal MP Greg Fergus breached Conflict of Interest Act with letter, watchdog rules

OTTAWA — Liberal MP Greg Fergus breached the Conflict of Interest Act by writing a letter in support of a television channel's application for mandatory carriage, the federal ethics commissioner has found.
Liberal MP Greg Fergus stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Liberal MP Greg Fergus breached the Conflict of Interest Act by writing a letter in support of a television channel's application for mandatory carriage, the federal ethics commissioner has found.

The letter was submitted to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last year to encourage required distribution of Natyf TV, which serves a multicultural francophone audience, as part of digital basic services. 

Fergus, who represents the Quebec riding of Hull-Aylmer, is also parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Treasury Board President Mona Fortier, and he has served as chair of the parliamentary Black caucus. 

The Canadian Press came across Fergus's letter during a routine examination of filings with the CRTC last fall. Ethics commissioner Mario Dion opened an investigation in early October after the news agency asked his office about the letter.

In a report released Tuesday, Dion said Fergus sought to improperly further Natyf's private interests because he intervened in the decision-making process of the broadcast regulator, a quasi-judicial tribunal.

Dion noted his office has previously established that ministers and parliamentary secretaries should not write letters of support to quasi-judicial tribunals like the CRTC, given their government roles and the influence they have.

Fergus cannot circumvent the rules of the act by simply wearing his MP hat to sign a letter of support to an administrative tribunal, Dion said in an accompanying statement.

"Ministers and parliamentary secretaries may help their constituents deal with an administrative tribunal in very limited instances, such as explaining the tribunal's processes or giving them its contact information," Dion said.

"Given his years of experience and his position in government, Mr. Fergus should have been aware of these rules and should have sought advice from this Office before writing the letter."

Fergus knew one of the directors of Natyf Inc., Ronald Félix, in a professional context through his work as an MP and chair of the parliamentary Black caucus. 

In June 2021, the two met, at Félix's request, to discuss Natyf's application with the CRTC and to request a letter of support, Dion's report says. In late June 2021, Fergus approved and signed the letter. 

Last September, the CRTC invited comments on Natyf's application in advance of a January hearing. Soon after, representatives of Natyf Inc. submitted Fergus's letter of support to the CRTC.

Dion noted that Fergus did not address his letter to anyone at the CRTC, nor did he send the letter himself. However, the letter included Natyf's reference number with the CRTC, Dion's report says. 

"There is no doubt that the letter of support was intended to influence the decision of the CRTC so as to further the private interests of Natyf Inc."

In a statement prepared for Dion, Fergus said that as a Black parliamentarian and chair of the parliamentary Black caucus, when he was asked to endorse Natyf's application, he did so in part as a message to other Black Canadians that they have a place where they can feel welcome. 

Fergus recognized his unintentional error in providing the letter of support to Natyf and stated from the outset "that he is deeply sorry for his action," Dion's report says.

"Mr. Fergus noted his long and detailed history of consulting and working with this office, which made his error embarrassing and out of character."

Dion recommended that the government consider mandating all ministers and parliamentary secretaries to receive training from his office.

Government House leader Mark Holland said the government would "have to take a look" at the idea. "We constantly are evaluating our processes and how we can ensure that we adhere to the highest ethical standards."

Dion also announced Tuesday that he is stepping down as commissioner effective Feb. 21 due to "persistent health issues."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2023.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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