Kenney's office apologizes for Sun News stunt
Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, February 2, 2012 7:23PM EST
OTTAWA - Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and the Sun News Network are laying the blame for a misleading televised citizenship ceremony squarely on the shoulders of federal civil servants.
The Canadian Press reported Thursday that six federal bureaucrats were drafted to pose as new Canadians for a reaffirmation ceremony broadcast on the TV channel last October.
Kenney's office had asked the department to organize the event on short notice, adding it to the 60 events bureaucrats had planned for Canada's Citizenship Week.
The co-hosts of the show, who say they were unaware of the presence of the stand-in immigrants, repeatedly referred to the group of 10 as "new Canadians" who had "finally" received their citizenship.
A reaffirmation ceremony, however, is an opportunity for existing Canadians to retake their oath.
Kenney blamed the incident on "logistical" problems.
"I became aware that in a reaffirmation ceremony last year following logistical problems that the situation was poorly handled," Kenney said in the House of Commons.
"I regret that, but that in no way should undermine the importance and value of special reaffirmation ceremonies which we encourage all Canadians to participate in."
Documents released to The Canadian Press under access-to-information legislation show bureaucrats tried to convince Kenney's office and Sun News to abandon the ceremony idea.
They suggested the network could cover one of the 13 scheduled ceremonies in Ontario -- four of them in Toronto, including one at the Air Canada Centre.
One senior bureaucrat at the registrar of Canadian citizenship expressed concern to Kenney's office that Sun News seemed to want to feature "only" the oath, which might short-change new Canadians from the full ceremony experience.
"We have to keep in mind that the ceremony should first and foremost be a special (sic) for the new citizen, most of whom will want family and friends (sic) attend this very special day in their lives," the bureaucrat wrote.
When a bureaucrat sent Sun News a list of possible citizenship ceremonies to cover in Ontario, a network employee suggested another scenario.
"Let's do it. We can fake the Oath," says an email from a @sunmedia.ca email address, the name blacked out of the document.
A source at Sun News said the employee who sent the email has since left the network and now works for the CBC. That individual did not immediately return messages to confirm or deny the information.
Serge Sasseville, a spokesman for Sun News' parent company Quebecor Inc., declined comment, instead referring questions to Sun newspaper stories.
Kenney's office wound up asking the department to organize a simple reaffirmation ceremony. When bureaucrats asked for direction on the date, a member of Kenney's staff said, "Which ever date works for Sun TV, although we would prefer (Oct.) 18th."
Local department staff in Toronto then set out to find 10 new Canadians willing to restate their oath at the Sun News studios on Oct. 18, calling people who had dealt with the department in the past.
The goal was to find people who had recently taken the real oath.
"I have also just confirmed ... that all the clients that are calling back are declining the request as they have to attend work and are not able to take the time off to participate in this reaffirmation ceremony," wrote one civil servant.
Four days before the ceremony, a bureaucrat in downtown Toronto again pleaded whether Sun News could instead go to an already planned event.
"Please advise if the alternative would be acceptable since we do not have the resources to call over 3,000 clients to hopefully get 10 clients for this proposed event."
Kenney spokesman Kasra Nejatian said Thursday that at one point the minister's office had signalled the event would be cancelled for lack of participation, but that it was kept in play when bureaucrats insisted they had found 11 people to attend.
Only three of those people showed up.
But the show went on -- featuring at least six federal bureaucrats. Three of those who took the oath wore identical T-shirts featuring the department's citizenship week logo.
"In the end, we had three new citizens attend -- I anticipated that it would be a low turn-out after doing follow-up calls yesterday, so I asked six CIC (Citizenship and Immigration) employees to come to the ceremony so that we'd have the right numbers," wrote one senior communications adviser.
Eight adults and two children took the oath in the broadcast -- it's unclear whether there was an additional new Canadian or an additional bureaucrat that rounded out the numbers.
"Ten new Canadians are taking their oath right now, here at our Sun News studio here in Toronto," Sun News host Alex Pierson said before Judge Aris Babikian began the ceremony.
Co-host Pat Bolland said they were "among 4,700 people who actually enjoy the special honour of becoming Canadians" during citizenship week.
Babikian mentioned more than once that the people were there to "reaffirm" their citizenship, but that point seemed to be lost on the Sun News Network hosts.
Later, Pierson congratulated "all the new Canadians here today, 10 of you here at Sun News Network, finally Canadian citizens. Wonderful to have you."
In a Sun News broadcast segment Thursday, Bolland told viewers the fact some of the people he presented in the studio last October were not actually new Canadians was "completely unknown to us."
"It would seem that both of us have a little egg on our face," Bolland said to Kenney's spokeswoman Candice Malcolm, who apologized to Sun News on air.
NDP immigration critic Don Davies slammed Kenney for wasting the time of Canadian civil servants.
"We have people waiting five, 10, 15 years for applications, and the minister's office is directing staff to contact 3,000 people to find 10 people to in a fake affirmation ceremony to placate a particular media outlet," said Davies.
"You know that is in my opinion an appalling and unacceptable use of our civil service and to me it indicates that there's something seriously wrong."
The Toronto-based bureaucrat who oversaw the reaffirmation ceremony told her departmental colleagues in an email the next day that it was probably not a great idea.
"My overall impression of the experience is that it was a significant amount of work for a lot of people for little results," she wrote.
"In the future, I recommend that should (the minister's office) wish to do another in-studio ceremony at Sun TV that it be a full citizenship ceremony instead of a reaffirmation ceremony (I think that we will be more likely to get participants that way), or better yet, that the station send a crew to one of our scheduled ceremonies."
The CBC broadcast an hour-long, full-fledged citizenship ceremony for 75 new Canadians that featured a studio audience, a bagpiper, a retired Mountie in his red serge and local dignitaries. That event, which was broadcast live a day after the Sun's reaffirmation ceremony, had been planned with the department since the summer.
Kenney has emphasized the solemnity of the act of citizenship, recently moving to force Muslim women who wear burkas or niqabs to reveal their faces.
"Finally we are ensuring that the citizenship oath itself is properly respected by all of those who take it so that they in taking a solemn commitment, being a witness publicly to the rest of their fellow citizens, demonstrate who they are and their commitment to Canada," Kenney said last December.
One staff member from Kenney's office who appeared in the email chain about the event requested their name be blacked out before release under the Access to Information Act.