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Two Loblaws lobbyists, one of which helped steer the company towards a controversial $12-million federal grant to reduce the energy consumption of their refrigerators, also donated frequently to the Liberal Party and attended a partisan fundraising event with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna and two of her senior officials also met with one of the lobbyists representing Loblaw Companies Ltd., soon after the grant program had opened to businesses, her office confirmed.
McKenna's office said the meeting with the lobbyist was on another topic, plastic waste, and that the grant was awarded following a fair and competitive process. Loblaw Companies also denies that the grant for their fridges was awarded because of lobbying or preferential treatment, and the lobbyists in question say they never lobbied the government over the program on behalf of the company.
But the connections and money flowing between individuals representing Loblaws and the Liberal Party "doesn't pass the smell test," argued NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus. “This is a company that has huge capacity, huge tentacles, huge lobbying," he said in an interview.
"They’re very comfortable with the prime minister, they’re attending fundraisers with the prime minister and senior staff from the minister of environment’s office. So this is a very comfy, cozy relationship....for the Liberals to say (Loblaws) won this challenge fair and square is ridiculous."
The Liberal government has been criticized for weeks over its decision to hand public money to Loblaw Companies, one of Canada’s largest corporations, to help make refrigeration systems at hundreds of its supermarkets more efficient.
Conservative environment critic Ed Fast has blasted the Trudeau Liberals for giving handouts to "the wealthy and well-connected." On Monday, the NDP demanded that the government cancel the $12-million grant.
McKenna has said Loblaws won the grant out of the government’s $500-million Low Carbon Economy Challenge (LCEC) through a competitive process driven by her department, and that it will help slash the company’s annual carbon pollution by roughly a quarter, while the company pays for three-quarters of the cost.
On the day of the announcement, she posted a video of herself on Twitter, speaking to an executive from the grocery store chain, vice president of facilities Mark Schembri, promoting the grant, while noting that it would substantially reduce pollution, equivalent to taking more than 50,000 cars off the road in a year.
"So that's a great initiative," McKenna said in the video, posted on April 8.
By working together, we can take action on climate change in a way that benefits all Canadians. Thanks for taking action for our environment, @LoblawCo, and for cutting pollution — the equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road each year. pic.twitter.com/iWUBOBTdvF— Catherine McKenna (@cathmckenna) April 8, 2019
A review of lobbying and political donation records, as well as attendance records at Liberal Party donor events, shows that while Loblaws was awaiting the results of this competition, it retained Liberal-friendly lobbyists pushing its message in close proximity to powerful people in Canadian politics.
This is a common practice for large companies in dealings with governments of all political stripes. It is also common for government officials to accept meetings with stakeholders to discuss issues of public policy and ensure that they are informed about the consequences and impacts of important decisions.
Summa Strategies senior advisor Joanne Dobson, who is a former Liberal political advisor, and consultant Meredith Logan are both registered to lobby the government on behalf of Loblaw Companies on a range of topics including the environment and the federal Environment Department.
They have also given thousands of dollars to the Liberal Party, according to fundraising records held by Elections Canada. Dobson gave a combined $2,886.83 between 2012 and 2018, while Logan gave $3,175.57 between 2014 and 2018, records show. Both spread their giving over dozens of donations.
They also attended a large Liberal “donor appreciation event” in Ottawa on June 18, 2018, according to the Liberal Party’s attendance records of these events. A Hill Times story covering that event says party president Suzanne Cowan gave a speech, followed by Trudeau’s wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and then the prime minister himself.
That donor event, happening a few months after the refrigeration grant contest opened, was also attended by several senior staff in McKenna’s office, the attendance record showed. This included director of policy Jamie MacDonald, senior policy advisor Mikaela McQuade, director of operations Lucy Hargreaves and director of parliamentary affairs Kyle Harrietha.
Dobson had communicated with McKenna months earlier, on March 27, 2018 on behalf of Loblaws, according to the lobbyist registry, where the minister was joined by MacDonald and chief of staff Marlo Raynolds. McKenna's office confirmed this record of communication was an actual meeting between the three individuals.
That meeting was held just two weeks after expressions of interest had opened for businesses to compete for a slice of the grant program, on March 14, 2018.
But McKenna’s press secretary Sabrina Kim said the meeting was "regarding plastics,” not the grant program. “Attendees specifically discussed the federal government’s commitment to a national zero plastic waste strategy, and to discuss actions and commitments that Loblaw can make," she wrote in an emailed response to questions.
Kim said Loblaws was “one of 54 successful recipients thus far” and was selected “through a competitive, rigorous and fair process led by Environment and Climate Change Canada officials.”
The $12-million grant was “among the projects proposed in this process that would achieve the most cost effective emissions reductions,” she added. “We need to be working with all sectors and Canadians across the country to cut pollution,” she wrote.
Dobson confirmed her and Logan’s donations to the Liberals and their attendance at the donor appreciation event, part of what the party calls its Laurier Club. “Political contributions to all parties are public as is attendance at the Laurier Club events,” she wrote in an email.
She denied either of them lobbied the government over the program. Dobson said Summa Strategies does work on behalf of Loblaw Companies on specific files including the environment, but her involvement was limited to alerting the company about the grant competition and working on the announcement once Loblaws was picked as a winner.
“At no point did Meredith Logan, myself or anyone from Summa Strategies, lobby the Government of Canada on behalf of Loblaw Companies Ltd. regarding the Low Carbon Economy Challenge,” Dobson said.
“My involvement with their application was limited to identifying the opportunity for Loblaw and providing information on the program details. After Loblaw was notified of the success of their application, I engaged on their behalf for the purposes of discussing the announcement and logistics.”
Grant not linked to well-connected lobbyists, says Loblaws
Loblaw Companies senior director of external communication Catherine Thomas denied that the company was able to secure the $12-million grant because of its well-connected lobbyists.
"Any claims that this was awarded because of preferential treatment or lobbying are untrue," wrote Thomas in an email. “Like dozens of other companies, we received funding from the Low Carbon Economy Fund following an online application process, and based on our ability to make a meaningful contribution to emission reductions."
She said Loblaws "has committed to reducing our carbon footprint 30 per cent by 2030, and has made significant investments in our business over the past few years toward achieving this goal. This funding extends an additional $36 million investment made by Loblaw and drives emission reductions much faster than would have been otherwise possible."
On Monday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh accused the government of "a lack of understanding of what Canadians are going through," suggesting that a large company like Loblaws that was already willing to put up $36 million didn't need another $12 million of public money.
"Helping a massively profitable business is an irresponsible use of our taxpayer dollars," said Singh in Parliament. "What we need to do is to make investments that encourage new action, not something that is already going to happen. We need to support small and medium-sized businesses. We need to invest aggressively in green energy."
Parliamentary Secretary Adam Vaughan, however, said Loblaws only received the grant as a "flow through" and that a factory in the Toronto region was a benefactor. He flipped the tables on the NDP, suggesting that the cancellation of the $12-million grant would actually hurt small business.
"The purchase is actually being made from a factory in Mississauga, where good, hard-working Canadians are at work," said Vaughan.
"The real investments being made are with a company with new technology and new chemicals, which are going to revolutionize the way in which refrigeration is done and therefore food is protected in this country. Is the member opposite prepared to pull the money out of Mississauga and bankrupt that small manufacturing company?"
The Liberal Party put new restrictions in place on lobbyists at party fundraisers. But it made an exception for its "donor appreciation events," where lobbyists can still attend if they sign a declaration that says they are attending in their personal capacity, and agree not to lobby public office holders and comply with the Lobbying Act.
"For two years now, the Liberal Party has been the first and only party to move forward with the strongest standards in federal politics for open and transparent political fundraising events, including facilitating media coverage, advance posting, hosting in publicly accessible spaces, and timely reporting of event details and guest lists," party spokesman Parker Lund wrote in an emailed response Wednesday.
This includes an "additional step" to check if "attendees are registered to lobby the relevant office of a special guest" at "events with a ticketed price for the donation amount," he said, as well as the declaration which is made when attendees "confirm their RSVP."
"No other party has yet adopted the same level of transparency. Canadians expect our political leaders to meet the highest standards for openness and transparency," wrote Lund. "Donor appreciation events do not have separate ticket prices, and in most cases consist of long-time volunteers and supporters of the party who are not making a specific contribution for an event with one particular special guest."
Angus said it was a “ridiculous prevarication” that lobbyists who donate to the party can get invited to an event thanking them for being a donor, but can’t pay to attend what he called a “cash-for-access fundraiser," a traditional donor event with a specific entry fee.
“They’re still meeting the prime minister, they’re still able to access the top ministerial staff on a file that they’re lobbying on, and they’re being thanked for their money at the same time,” he said of the donor appreciation events.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:58 p.m. ET on May 1, 2019 to include a statement from the Liberal Party that was sent after this story was published.