Province Withholding More Documents On N.S. Immigrant File

Province withholding more documents on N.S. immigration file

The Canadian Press
December 6, 2007

HALIFAX – Nova Scotia's auditor general and a legislative committee are being denied access to key documents related to a failed provincial immigration program, prompting a Liberal critic to allege the Tory government is trying to cover up potentially damaging information.

Keith Colwell, a member of public accounts committee, made the accusation Wednesday after the committee was told the documents were off limits to protect the secrecy of cabinet discussions and communication between lawyers and their clients.

“There's something they're covering up, that's for sure,” Colwell said outside the legislature. “They won't give us information on companies, so there is something really wrong with this whole situation.”

The nominee program, set up in 2002 and administered by Cornwallis Financial Corp., charged immigrants a $130,000 fee in exchange for a six-month work term with a local business. But the program ran into trouble and the province terminated the contract in 2006 – prompting a lawsuit from Cornwallis – and later handed out $60 million in refunds.

The opposition Liberals and NDP have since demanded access to documents that could shed light on how ministers within the minority Conservative government dealt with the embarrassing issue.

Maureen MacDonald, NDP chairwoman of the legislative committed, said she and other committee members want to look at documents that date back to 2001.

“The committee wants the whole story of the chain of command on the nominee file,” MacDonald said. “So far, the government has been deflecting responsibility for anything that went wrong on staff. We want to know what was the ministerial responsibility.”

Immigration Minister Len Goucher gave a one word answer – “Nuts” – when asked by what he thought of the Colwell's charge.

Goucher, who has promised full transparency on the nominee file, said certain documents had to be withheld to protect the conventions of cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege.

“I think we can all agree that those types of documents aren't ones that should be in the public domain anyway because they were never meant to be,” said Goucher.

But the auditor general's office isn't buying that argument.

“We believe that our legislation that provides the mandate to our office also gives us access to any and all documents we need to conduct audits,” said deputy auditor general Alan Horgan.

Premier Rodney MacDonald later insisted his government is following “the letter of the law and … all of the information that should be provided is provided.”

But he stressed that cabinet confidentiality must prevail.

“We want to make the very best decisions for the public of Nova Scotia,” he said. “We need to ensure that the public knows that for sensitive information that impacts them or their business, that there is that confidentiality there for them.”