Two federal ministries are investigating potential violations of privacy laws after government officials shared details about a Postmedia news story and the journalist pursuing it, with representatives of Irving Shipbuilding.
Following a tip, Postmedia submitted questions on March 6 to two departments, National Defence and Public Services and Procurement Canada, about possible problems with some of the welding on HMCS Harry DeWolf, the first of the six new Arctic patrol ships Irving is building for the Royal Canadian Navy as part of a project that will cost taxpayers $3.5 billion.
However, just 90 minutes after submitting questions — and before receiving a response from either government department — an Irving representative emailed Postmedia to say the company had been made aware of the inquiry and wanted to discuss it. Irving Shipbuilding president Kevin McCoy then telephoned and after a brief discussion, threatened legal action against the news organization. Irving’s lawyers would be “making sure you understand that if you write something false about our reputation we will pursue it,” he said.
This is the third time information about Postmedia's investigations, as well as a reporter’s personal information, have been shared with the defence industry. It is the second time specific inquiries regarding government shipbuilding have been communicated to Irving.
Owned by one of the richest families in Canada, Irving Shipbuilding is also the subject of allegations of political interference in a project that involved a rival firm’s plan to supply the Royal Canadian Navy with a supply ship. Irving denies any political meddling. The supply ship project is at the heart of the current legal battle involving Vice Admiral Mark Norman.
In response to the call from Irving, Postmedia clarified that fact-finding inquiries were in progress. Nonetheless, within an hour David Henley, Irving Shipbuilding’s vice-president and general counsel, emailed Postmedia saying he understood the news organization was “preparing a story which suggests there are substantial problems with welds” on the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, and that the Harry DeWolf would be coming out of the water so the issue could be fixed.
“We are unaware of your source of information but wish to advise you that you are being misled,” Henley wrote. “There are no material issues with the welds on the AOPS and there is certainly no plan to take the first AOPS out of the water. Any story that suggests this would be false and defamatory to Irving Shipbuilding.”
On the night of March 6 DND confirmed to Postmedia that although there have been issues with welding on the ship, the problems were “minor” and said they did not require the vessel to be docked for repairs.
Both DND and PSPC admitted last week, however, that they had provided Irving with personal details and other information about a Postmedia journalist.
“We are currently verifying whether this constitutes a violation of the Privacy Act,” DND said in a statement. “Regardless of that outcome, we have already issued interim direction to anonymize media requests pending further information.”
PSPC issued a similar response.
In October, 2016, a public relations specialist employed by an Ottawa firm handling communications for Irving was informed of questions Postmedia was asking PSPC about the $60-billion Canadian Surface Combatant project. The largest procurement project in Canadian history, it will see Irving build 15 new warships to replace the navy’s existing fleet of frigates. The PR specialist declined to say who at PSPC had provided the information. At the time Postmedia complained verbally about the incident to a PSPC media relations staffer.
Neither Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan nor Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough responded to a request for comment, and a spokesperson said PSPC deputy minister Bill Matthews was not available for comment.
In 2018 the Royal Canadian Air Force also shared personal information about a Postmedia journalist, and details about inquiries underway about Cormorant helicopters, with individuals in the defence industry. When Postmedia originally complained about the incident, the RCAF said it would investigate. Asked this week for an update on the investigation's progress, a defence official said the RCAF has reinforced its training for personnel to make sure they understand the Privacy law.
Irving Shipbuilding has made no further comment to Postmedia regarding HMCS Harry DeWolf, nor did company representatives respond to questions regarding who provided information on Postmedia’s latest inquiries.
In the ongoing Norman case, the former second-in-command of the Canadian Forces has been charged with one count of breach of trust for allegedly leaking confidential information to Davie Shipbuilding, an Irving rival which had a deal to convert a commercial vessel into a supply ship for the navy.
After forming government in the fall of 2015 the Liberals received a letter from Irving complaining the company’s own supply ship proposal had not been given due consideration. Irving has consistently denied it made any attempt to undercut a rival shipbuilder via political interference. Nonetheless, after receiving the letter the Liberals decided to pause the Davie project, a decision that leaked to the media. The resulting backlash was seen as a factor in the Liberal’s decision to eventually proceed with the Davie deal.
In the aftermath, federal officials called in the RCMP to hunt down the source of the leak.
In building a defence for Norman, his lawyers have taken aim at former Treasury Board President Scott Brison’s links to the Irving family and Brison’s role in the government’s plan to delay the Davie deal.
Brison has denied any wrongdoing or lobbying on behalf of the Irvings. In late January he asked for legal standing in the Norman case to “protect against unmerited intrusions into his privacy, and to ensure that disclosure requests are clear and complete.” Brison announced in January he was resigning from cabinet and would not seek re-election, and last month he quit as the MP for the Nova Scotia riding of Kings-Hants.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019