Thank you, Mr. Chair.
At this time, I'd like to move that pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the committee invite the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship to appear to testify before committee and explain the discrepancy between government claims that closing the Vegreville immigration case processing centre was done for budgetary reasons, and the new information showing it was not. I'd like to thank the committee for allowing me to be here today to advocate for the employees of the case processing centre in Vegreville—76% of whom happen to be women—for their families, their community members, and for the town itself.
In December, I had the opportunity to address this committee, and I'm here once again to present new facts and new information that Liberal members of Parliament, Liberal ministers, Liberal political staff, and senior departmental officials have refused to acknowledge or share with Canadians. I also hope this isn't the last opportunity that opposition MPs will have to raise issues from constituents and on behalf of all Canadians directly in committee without a time limit.
So why is this motion important, and why should it be supported by every member of this committee? The reason is that the Liberals have been dishonest with Canadians about the costs, and the minister needs to set the record straight. Last week Global News revealed startling information that's in direct contradiction to what senior Liberals have been saying all along, and that's the decision to rip 280 jobs out of Vegreville, Alberta, would save money and would be better for taxpayers, but now all Canadians know that's not the case.
Let's go back to October 27, 2016, if we could, almost seven months to the day when employees, again 76% of whom are women and whom the Prime Minister has pledged to support, were told that the office of exemplary, hard-working, efficient employees was being closed and moved to Edmonton by December 31, 2018. For seven months, hard-working employees were told reason after reason for this closure. Excuses were made up as we went along. The reasons changed. The most alarming claims were about efficiency and performance problems, but the most consistent claim all the way along from multiple ministers, members of Parliament, and senior officials was that the decision would be cost-effective, that it would incur cost savings, and that it would be about the responsible management of taxpayers' dollars.
Employees, town officials, business owners, and community members were confused, of course, because this edict came as a complete shock to every one of them since they weren't consulted, they weren't asked to provide costing or upgrade options in the current facility.
I wrote a letter to the former Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship the day after this reckless and unjustifiable decision was announced. I asked him to reconsider, to look at all the facts that had so blatantly and obviously been overlooked. Here was his response:
Canadians expect their government to make responsible decisions on spending that will address current challenges, account for future situations, and ensure tax dollars are spent on quality services to meet expectations of clients and provide program excellence. The relocation will also save money as the new office space will be located within the Government of Canada's existing property inventory.
He wasn't the only one to talk about costing, of course. The MP for Edmonton Centre, where the jobs will be moving, wrote the following to a resident from Vegreville. He said:
Thank you for writing to me about the Vegreville CPC closure. It is always a pleasure to speak with constituents— open dialogue is a vital part of my job. I understand your and your community's concerns. Canadians expect their Government to make responsible decisions on government spending that will address current challenges, account for future situations, and that will ensure middle class tax dollars are spent on quality services to meet expectations of clients and provide program excellence.
Most residents were confused and left wondering, quite obviously, how can it be that rent, operating costs, construction costs, renovation costs, relocation costs, and buyouts would be cheaper than operating in Vegreville. Of course, now we know what the internal government department documents have shown all along, now we know the facts; it's not. Those internal documents detail how much more it will be to operate in Edmonton.
In an email dated April 19, 2016, two senior department officials realized the cost discrepancy and were crafting statements, obviously for themselves and for politicians to use.
The first one said this:
Public Services and Procurement Canada conducted an Investment Analysis Report based on the 280 FTEs in Vegreville and 312 FTEs in Edmonton over a 5 year period. The cost to the Crown if Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada remains in Vegreville would be approximately $7 million with the majority of this for rent and no additional fit-up would be required. The cost to the Crown if Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada move to Edmonton and increased its capacity to 312 FTEs—
—only 32 new positions, by the way—
—over a five year period, would be 22.6 million. The move to Edmonton would result in higher costs due to an increase in capacity (from 280 FTE's to 312 FTE's), the fit-up and rent costs for the additional capacity as well as an actual increase in the rental rate per square meter associated with occupying space in downtown Edmonton
—something that the common sense of the residents around Vegreville or any rural community in Canada, could probably have guessed.
It goes on to say:
It is important to note that as part of PSPC's overall analysis of available options, that over a 25 year life cycle for space, the overall cost to the Crown to relocate to Edmonton would be 46.6M...versus a cost of 35.8M to remain in our current location in Vegreville....
This information clearly confirms that the move will cost taxpayers more, both in the short term and in the long term. As a reminder, over a five-year period, the cost to the crown to operate in Edmonton will be over $22 million. To remain in Vegreville would cost $7 million, detailing a difference of almost $16 million in just five years.
Startlingly, the estimated fit up in Vegreville for the same timeline is—and it's going to sound crazy because it's so far apart—$25,144 versus a cost of $4.9 million in Edmonton. This is a stark difference, especially when you're talking about closing down an office in Vegreville that, according to the latest statistics, and as the department itself confirms, exceeded departmental standard targets of 80% by 93% and by 97%, respectively, for applications and extensions for applications.
John McCallum and the MP for Edmonton Centre weren't the only ones to be dishonest with Canadians. On November 29, 2016, the former parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship participated in a late show debate with me. I raised specific concerns with him regarding the lack of business case, the lack of consultation, the lack of an economic impact assessment, and the lack of answers from the minister. I'll read his response, in full:
Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague across the aisle for her important advocacy on this issue on behalf of her constituents in Vegreville. To respond to the increased demand in various business lines and to expand the operations of the IRCC, the department has made the difficult but necessary decision to relocate the Vegreville case processing centre to Edmonton. Canadians expect any government, including this government, to make responsible decisions on government spending that will ensure that taxpayers' dollars are spent on quality services that address current challenges and future needs.
The member opposite has raised the issue of whether there is a business case. My comments are indeed directed at addressing that very concern. In fact, the Minister of Immigration has stated that the department intends to expand its operations in Alberta in the coming years, creating in aggregate more jobs for Albertans. That's my first point.
With 42% of the current staff of Vegreville reaching retirement age in the next five years, the move to Edmonton will make it easier to recruit and retain qualified bilingual employees to meet the growing current and future needs. To date the recruitment efforts to replace staff have been unsuccessful.
None of these claims are true, by the way, but anyway....
This was the case even under the former government. Needless to say, the inability to recruit new staff, combined with the reduction in the workforce due to retirement, is a serious challenge. With fewer employees, service to clients will certainly be impacted.
I guess the service of consistently exceeding the departmental targets is not sufficient. He said:
That, again, buttresses the business case.
Between October 2015 and September 2016, 17% of the staff in Vegreville left the workforce.
He said to me:
As the member opposite well knows, the letter she received from the Minister of Immigration on November 17 stipulated that there were ongoing tenant issues at the current location in Vegreville, with almost 200 service calls made since 2013 to fix the heating, cooling, sanitary, and plumbing issues, again during the tenure of the previous government.
By the way, the landlord had completed all of those concerns.
Once again, he said:
These are issues that the previous government was unable to resolve. This move will save taxpayers money because the new office will be located on premises owned by the Government of Canada.
He claimed that:
Although the move from Vegreville to Edmonton makes business sense based on current and future needs, the member needs to understand that it was not a decision made without great consideration of the impact it would have on employees, as well as to her constituents in the community of Vegreville. Employees were advised well in advance of this relocation, and efforts are underway to ensure that the impacts on staff are minimized.
I have great concern for the issues the member has outlined with respect to families. We are concerned and sensitive to the needs and problems that families are facing with the challenges they are undergoing in every facet of our economy, particularly in Vegreville, in the member's constituency. The management of IRCC will continue to work closely with staff throughout this transition period.
The positions in the relocated office will have the same work descriptions they have now, and so the current indeterminate employees will be able to retain their jobs.
This, of course, doesn't make any sense if one of the rationales is that the performance is bad, so, therefore, the office needs to be shut down. Right? It doesn't make any sense because it's all false.
Business will continue as usual throughout the transition.
As I have said, Canadians expect their government to manage taxpayer dollars well, even if that means making difficult decisions, and this is the decision that we had to take.
A case, of course, the government has not made.
I would also note that the Minister of Immigration has reached out to the member for Lakeland to meet with respect to Vegreville and to address her concerns and questions. The minister's office has yet to hear from the member.
We will continue to show leadership and continue to deliver for Albertans.
His second rebuttal included the same information about costing, which is what we're here to discuss today. He said:
Madam Speaker, we appreciate the efforts and advocacy by the member opposite. However, fiscal prudence and sound management of Canadian public finances is something that the party of the member opposite stands for. It is something that this government is working towards and is trying to implement with this decision. We are expected to make responsible decisions on government spending involving taxpayer dollars and to ensure that those taxpayer dollars are spent on quality services that address current challenges and future needs.
Let me summarize, just to be clear. Just like the former minister, John McCallum, the former parliamentary secretary, still our colleague, said point-blank that this move will save taxpayers money.
That's false. It's completely untrue.
He also said:
We are expected to make responsible decisions on government spending involving taxpayer dollars and to ensure that those taxpayer dollars are spent on quality services that address current challenges and future needs.
But it's clear and as plain as day to everybody that this decision simply was not responsible and it flies in the face of everything the Liberals say they are all about.
There was no consultation, and early on, in a direct response to the union, senior department officials when they were asked straight out whether or not there was a cost analysis said no, there was no economic impact assessment. So, of course, there could be no supposed business case.
I'm not sure what dictionary the Liberals are using, but their definition of “responsible” doesn't seem to make any sense.
On October 27, during that announcement to employees and to town officials, who were not initially invited to the announcement and found out through text messages from employees at CPC Vegreville, senior IRCC official Robert Orr was asked by an employee if a business case or an economic impact assessment was completed. The response was no.
For months my office, the town of Vegreville, the union representative, and the NDP MLA for the area have asked the minister's office and the department for any information to substantiate the claims the officials have made publicly and the claims Liberal MPs and ministers have made publicly. I don't know why this is making you smile. We asked for information including costing, studies, consultations, and building maintenance.
Through ATIPs and order paper questions the Liberals provided cherry-picked information, redacted documents, and information that didn't even make sense.
As recently as May 9, 2017, the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, an MP in Edmonton, claimed:
There is an impact on that community, and we don't deny that, but there's also a compelling business case.
How can there be a compelling business case without a cost analysis? That's an obvious question that all of us were asking, but now we know, of course, there actually was a cost analysis. There was an internal government cost analysis and it proves, now that we all have seen the documents, that everything the Liberals have said publicly about this decision being required to save taxpayers money and being cost effective is not true. It's completely false.
We'll talk a little bit about the messaging. The messaging, which internal documents reveal was sent to the minister's office for approval, includes the specific talking points that, “The relocation will also save money” and “Canadians expect their Government to make responsible decisions on government spending”.
This has been said time and time again by the former minister, the former parliamentary secretary, the Minister of Infrastructure who is the member of Parliament from Edmonton Centre, and even the current Minister of Immigration and Refugees and Citizenship, for whom I have a great deal respect.
On February 14 of this year, the minister responded to me in question period saying, “our government has a responsibility to make decisions on government spending of the hard-earned middle-class tax dollars.” This is not responsible, and the answers—until Canadians could all see the internal documents—have not been honest. These talking points prepared by both senior departmental staff and Liberal political staff prepared Liberal politicians and put them out in public to be dishonest with Canadians about this so-called responsible spending of their tax dollars in the closure of this office.
Where is the transparency about the costing? Where is the transparency this government promised? The Liberals have publicly claimed honesty and transparency are key pillars of their mandate. Here is another phrase from the former minister's mandate letter: “...our platform offered a new, ambitious plan for a strong and growing middle class.” Of course, a strong and growing middle class in Vegreville will be harmed with the closure of the CPC. Here is another: “We made a commitment to invest in growing our economy, strengthening the middle class, and helping those working hard to join it.” I guess that only counts if you're in an economy in a major city centre. And there's this: “If we are to tackle the real challenges we face as a country...Canadians need to have faith in their government’s honesty and willingness to listen.”
It's quite clear there's been no honesty and no listening on this decision to close the Vegreville case processing centre.
The Prime Minister said:
As Minister.... This will include: close collaboration with your colleagues; meaningful engagement with Opposition Members of Parliament—
By the way, it was said publicly a number of times by the minister and others that they had spoken to me and met with me, when they hadn't.
—Parliamentary Committees and the public service; constructive dialogue with Canadians, civil society, and stakeholders, including business, organized labour, the broader public sector, and the not-for-profit and charitable sectors; and identifying ways to find solutions and avoid escalating conflicts unnecessarily.
Of course, we know that no constructive dialogue with the employees or the stakeholders in Vegreville happened, and not-for-profit sectors, charitable sectors, public servants, businesses, and citizens will all be harmed in Vegreville and the region because of the closure of this office.
This is just another example—and obviously one that hits home very deeply and strongly for me—of the Liberals saying one thing and then doing the complete opposite. I'm appealing to my colleagues to hold your government to its own promises.
Also, the answers to my questions, the multiple questions from our interim leader, Rona Ambrose, and the questions of 12 of my Conservative colleagues—12 of them—in the House of Commons, in the Senate, in committees, have all failed to share the facts. They've all obscured the fact that we now know that this closure will cost Canadians tens of millions of taxpayer dollars more.
Also, the responses to those questions included this complete bold-faced lie that this decision would save taxpayers money. It will cost Canadians more. We know that now.
It will cost a loss of up to 420 people from the community of Vegreville.
It will cost Canadians more to close this office, and it will remove 9% of the town's labour force.
It will cost Canadians more to close this office, and it will cost the town $15.9 million of GDP.
It will cost Canadians more, and it will cost the town $14.5 million of labour income.
It will cost Canadians more and result in a loss of $1.2 million in municipal revenue to the town of Vegreville annually.
It will cost Canadians more and cost employees...specifically, the 76% of employees who are women, forcing them to choose between families, their community, their volunteer commitments, and a career.
It will cost Canadians more to close this office, and it will impact over 250 spouses' jobs in Vegreville.
It will cost Canadians more to close this office, and it will impact the three local small businesses owned by employee families.
It will cost Canadians more to close this office and cause businesses to close their doors.
It will cost Canadians more to close this office and impact 350 school-aged children in Vegreville.
It will cost Canadians more and cost employees thousands in moving costs and relocation expenses.
It will cost Canadians more to close this office, and it will force double the number of houses to go on the market in Vegreville.
Here's a letter from from a constituent who outlines the supposed business case:
The devastating news delivered today by Mr. Robert Orr at a town hall meeting for the staff of the Case Processing Centre in Vegreville has sent shock waves throughout our community. Mr. Orr said it was a 'business' decision to relocate the centre to Edmonton, address unknown—
and we know now...in Edmonton Centre,
—and announced after an hour of telling us how wonderful our work was, how much they appreciated the way we pitch in to whenever we are asked and how great our contribution to the...campaign was.
Then, Mr. Orr made his announcement and promptly pointed the finger of blame at Public Services and Procurement for the decision. Nobody from that department was there to take responsibility or re-direct it to you. Considering the Phoenix fiasco, it's not a surprise.
Mr. Orr and Mr. Armstrong reminded us that behind every application is a real person. Well, Minister McCallum, behind every position number on the Vegreville org chart is a real person who has directly contributed to your touted success. We are tax-paying public servants. We are the people who make you look good. What about us?
Client service is of the utmost importance, they said. That's more fantasy than fact. Ask the spousal applicants if it looks like we think client service is important when their wait times for first-stage decisions increased three-fold when those applications were moved from Vegreville to Mississauga.
By the way, all of those backed-up applications earlier this year, I think around February, were sent back to Vegreville to be caught up because they got backlogged in Mississauga. Yes, they announced they're shutting down the office in October, but they sent files back to catch up in February. It's brutal.
Ask the hundreds of foreign nationals whose applications are processed incorrectly by the ongoing cycles of casual staff at OSC, who don't even make it through the learning curve before their jobs are over, if it looks like we think client service is a priority.
Why does it have to be an all-or-none approach on your relocation idea? From what Mr. Orr said, there is and will continue to be lots of work. Leaving the permanent residence lines of business (including all the spousal applications) at the CPC in Vegreville and shifting some of the temporary residence lines of business to Edmonton makes the most sense. Mr. Orr's argument on the cost of leasing space in Edmonton vs Vegreville was not credible.
You can see how the common-sense rural constituents saw this right away, right? It didn't make any sense.
Our local mayor and councillors who rushed to attend the meeting were shocked as well, not having been approached by anyone from PSPC to inquire about lease agreements. Also not credible was his point on the numbers of CPC Vegreville employees who will be seeking retirement soon. With so many unemployed oil patch workers in our province, the spouses are now the main breadwinners in many cases and staying in the workforce longer.
The scope of this motion is to discuss costing and the inaccurate information that the Liberals have been providing Canadians. The reality is that so many other justifications for this decision are also false. If they are being dishonest about this one extremely important fact about whether or not, simply, clear as day, this decision would save taxpayers dollars, which we now know it won't, how can Canadians possibly trust anything—anything—that is said about this decision?
I hope that concerns every single Liberal member at this committee, and I hope you'll ask hard questions about it.
I'd like to share a letter from the landlord of the case processing centre in Vegreville discussing the discrepancy in costs between the two locations. It reads as follows:
We are commenting on Minister McCallum's letter dated November 30, 2016 to Ms Robyn Benson, Public Service Alliance, Ottawa, paragraphs 2 and 3...as follows:
Canadians expect their government to make responsible decisions on spending that will address current challenges, account for future situations, and ensure tax dollars are spent on quality services to meet expectations of clients and provide program excellence. The relocation will also save money, as the new office space will be located within the Government of Canada's existing property inventory.
There are millions of dollars that will be wasted in relocation costs, abandoning existing infrastructure and tenant improvements, new equipment and tenant improvements, cost of training new staff, and doubling of rent; totaling approximately $45 million dollars over 25 years. The relocations space is within Government of Canada's existing property inventory due to Public Works and Government Service vacating its tenancy at Canada Place and relocating in ATB Plaza North some of the most expensive office space in Edmonton thus leaving space empty for years. Is that ensuring tax dollars are spent wisely? It would have made sense to have PWGSC moved back to the premises in Canada Place. Apparently there was a decision by PWGSC to keep [a] tenant [at] Canada Place that had business in general with the public.
This is an important fact that this resident made, and I want to make sure you all know this:
CPC Vegreville is a Case Processing Center that has no personal contact with the public.
It's not a walk-in, front-line, client-facing service office.
Public Works occupied Canada Place prior to their move for years and could have returned to save money.
PSAC, the union that represents 280 employees at CPC Vegreville, and CEIU, a component of PSAC, released the following news release in response to the facts about the costing finally coming to light.
They said, and I quote:
With recent revelations that moving the Vegreville Case Processing Centre...to Edmonton will cost taxpayers millions extra, the union representing workers at the Vegreville Case Processing Centre is reaffirming the call to reverse the closure, and to invest in rural Canadian communities. “We have repeatedly asked the Immigration Minister to back up his claims with the numbers related to costs and savings, but all we received were redacted documents,” said Eddy Bourque, National President of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union...the component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada...that represents the majority of...workers at the [Case Processing Centre in Vegreville]. “Now, we know what he knew all along. This move is entirely political.”
Global News Chief Political Correspondent David Akin first broke the news on Wednesday, referencing an internal costing analysis from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada.... The documents show Ottawa will spend $46.6 million on renovations and leasing in Edmonton, compared to $35.8 million to upgrade the existing facility in Vegreville.
Marianne Hladun, regional executive vice-president for the PSAC prairie region said, “It never made sense to take a long-standing, high-functioning office out of a small, rural community and move it to a major metropolitan city. Alleged savings aside...”
—which now we know there are none—
“...the loss of qualified, capable workers and the combined years of experience would be devastating to the services that Canadians rely on.”
This is still within the PSAC press release. It reads:
Yesterday, MP Ralph Goodale answered questions in the House of Commons, defending the relocation with claims of a 20% vacancy rate in Vegreville. “We are 100% confident that if IRCC offered indeterminate employment instead of precarious term employment, they could easily fill any vacancies—including bilingual,” said Hladun. “This is just another example of face-saving from the Liberal government.”
The department plans to shutter the CPC in Vegreville and move the centre to Edmonton—over 100 kilometres away, forcing employees to relocate, commute over three hours each day, or quit the jobs they love. With 280 workers—about five percent of the town's population—it has been one of the largest employers in Vegreville for over 20 years.
Union officials, town officials, community members, employees and municipal, provincial, and federal representatives from all parties have all questioned the Liberals on this unfounded, unjustifiable removal of sustainable, well-paying jobs, the exact kind of federal public service jobs that are sustainable in rural communities because they're administrative and in processing. They question this attack on rural Canada. To claim this is a responsible use of taxpayer dollars is a slap in the face to the employees, to community members, to Albertans, and to all Canadians who have trusted this government to make honest and transparent decisions on their behalf.
I think often of the people in Vegreville and area who actually voted Liberal because on January 26, 2013, the Prime Minister visited Vegreville on a leg of his Alberta campaign tour. It might have been one of the only stops he made in the entire region, but at the Vegreville train station he looked people in the face in my riding and said, “This country is not about picking and choosing the areas that you think you might be popular in. It's about connecting and building a broad sense of where this country needs to go.”
This government, as we've all seen by now, may have a hard time keeping track of its promises to Canadians, but the people of Vegreville will not forget this.
The woman who posted that event with the Prime Minister stood up in December at a town hall in Vegreville and cried and said she regretted hosting that event, and felt this responsibility and guilt towards her community members for having enabled him to look them in their faces and say that, and now just stand by while this current minister continues to allow this unjustified and unfounded decision that's been lied about for seven months to go ahead.
The Prime Minister also said, “...there is something big happening in politics again, [and] maybe there's room for each of us to get involved.”
This decision to remove 280 rural jobs, and lying to Canadians about the millions more of their tax dollars that will go into moving the centre, is a clear example of the Prime Minister telling people one thing, and doing something else.
Again, given that this motion is to ask the Liberals to be responsible for the gap between what they've said about the cost justifying this decision and the fact that we all know, which is that it will cost millions more, once again I just want to put into perspective, on behalf of the people I represent, what these job losses mean.
This would be the equivalent of the job losses if you were to remove this size of office from other centres. From Charlottetown it would be the same as losing 3,158 jobs. From Saint John, it would be the same as losing 6,257 jobs. From St. John's, it would be the same as losing 9,647 jobs. From Regina, it would be the same as losing 10,312 jobs. From Halifax, it would be the same as cutting 19,117 jobs.
My grandmother was the first female mayor of Dartmouth, and while we probably differ ideologically, she would be proud of me today, I think.
Cutting these 280 jobs from Vegreville would be like removing 35,754 jobs from Winnipeg. It would be like removing 56,807 jobs from Edmonton. It would be like cutting 59,499 jobs from Calgary. It would be like cutting 60,551 jobs from Ottawa. It would be like cutting 113,299 jobs from Vancouver. It would be like cutting 187,298 jobs from Montreal . It would be like cutting 273,440 jobs from Toronto, with no consultation and apparently with no cost analysis. However, we now know that there was one the entire time, which said that this move would cost taxpayers more, unlike what the Liberals have been saying for seven months.
With no economic impact analysis, closing an office that has consistently exceeded departmental targets, over and over.... I hope that this concerns all members of this committee.
Thank you to the NDP for also advocating on behalf of the employees in Vegreville, on behalf of the town, and on behalf of the region.
As you know, the members of all of the political parties in the provincial legislature in Alberta are united on this. They're all calling for the reversal of this closure, and so are municipal representatives right across Canada. Of course, my Conservative colleagues have supported the town of Vegreville, and been champions and advocates for the people there, both in the Senate and in the House of Commons, at the highest levels of our party, enabling me to do things like this to advocate on behalf of our constituents.
I hope that you will support the motion to achieve accountability and transparency, and to question why there has been such a discrepancy between the claims that have been made about this closure and the facts that we now know. This will cost Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars more. It won't save money, and it's not responsible. It is unjust.