N.S. Auditor-General To Gain Access To Documents On Failed Immigration Programme

N.S. auditor general to gain access to documents on failed immigration program

The Canadian Press
July 15, 2008

HALIFAX—The Nova Scotia government agreed Tuesday to give the province's auditor general access to sensitive documents dealing with a failed immigration program that were once considered off limits.

The province had refused to show Jacques Lapointe thousands of pages of information about the immigrant nominee program, citing cabinet confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege.

However, provincial Justice Minister Cecil Clarke relented Tuesday, saying he'll allow Lapointe's staff to examine the documents at a government office, provided no photocopies are made.

The arrangement “will protect the important principles of solicitor-client privilege and cabinet confidentiality while at the same time ensuring public accountability,” Clarke said in a statement.

Solicitor-client privilege refers to the special status given to communication between lawyers and their clients, protecting their confidentiality.

Under the nominee program, immigrants paid $130,500 in fees to enter the province, with $100,000 used to secure a six-month internship with a Nova Scotia business, for which the nominee was to be paid at least $20,000.

The province has conceded it didn't properly monitor the program and participants were sometimes given menial jobs or simply sent home with their paycheques.

The contract for administering the program was awarded without tender to Halifax-based Cornwallis Financial Corp. through an alternative procurement process that allows the government to issue contracts without a competition.

But the program was soon mired in problems.

The government cancelled the program last year and offered to rebate $60 million to the 600 applicants who did not get a mentorship.

A consultant's review found the fees were the highest in Canada and some of the 200 participants who did get work terms have since complained the province didn't live up to its obligations and are demanding their money back, as well.

Meanwhile, Cornwallis has filed a $1.4-million lawsuit against the province's minority Conservative government.

The political controversy surrounding the failed program grew last month when Lapointe said he couldn't complete an audit of the program unless the government gave him the documents he was looking for.

At first, the province said that if it gave the records to Lapointe, he could be forced to provide them to Cornwallis, which is claiming in its lawsuit that the government tarnished its reputation.

However, opposition critics say the province was just stalling for time, hoping to avoid releasing embarrassing details about the program.

Keith Colwell, a Liberal member of the legislature who sits on a committee looking into the program, said he didn't buy the government's argument for secrecy.

“I believe the auditor general had the right to the information anyway and the government was trying to hide something by not providing the information.”

Lapointe issued the first portion of his audit on June 11, saying the program failed to properly screen employers or keep track of millions of dollars in fees paid by the immigrants.

The auditors conducted a survey of the businesses chosen to mentor immigrants and found that 14 out of 16 didn't fit the government's own criteria.

Lapointe also said Nova Scotia is the only jurisdiction in the country that denies its auditor general access to legal documents, and is only one of four provinces that deny access to cabinet documents.