Minister of Transport Marc Garneau takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Emails reveal close communication between government, transport regulator on refunds

‘It shows that they have not been acting independently… a judge who acts independently would not go and chat with lawyers for one of the sides,’ says Gabor Lukacs

Advocates, experts and opposition MPs say correspondence showing close communication between the federal Transport Department and the Canadian Transportation Agency around passenger refunds throws into question the independence of the CTA, an arm’s-length regulator.

Emails tabled with the House of Commons transport committee reveal that senior officials last spring were in frequent contact about the agency’s public stance on flight vouchers, which airlines cited repeatedly to justify withholding reimbursement for passengers.

Days before its release, senior policy advisors discussed a “Statement on Vouchers” which was posted by the CTA on March 25, 2020. It stated that flight credit constitutes a “reasonable approach” toward passengers left out of pocket by flights cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am on a Min/DM (minister/deputy minister) call and I’m sure the question will come up. Any insight you can provide quickly?” wrote Transport Canada’s Vincent Millette to the CTA’s Caitlin Hurcomb on the morning of March 23 regarding the “refund and voucher issue.”

“This was discussed between the Chair, the DM … your ADM” and others — at least one name is redacted — Hurcomb replied minutes later, referring to agency chair Scott Streiner and Transport Canada’s deputy minister and an assistant deputy minister.

“The statement indicates that the CTA would consider vouchers acceptable ‘refunds’ for those airlines that do require reimbursement in their tariff (contract).”

The back-and-forth was part of a larger stack of emails, presentations and internal documents exchanged by the two bodies and tabled with the transport committee.

Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group, says the redacted correspondence reveals little evidence so far of pressure from government on the regulator, but that the frequent contact between the two indicates a relationship more hand-in-glove than arm’s length.

“It shows that they have not been acting independently … A judge who acts independently would not go and chat with lawyers for one of the sides separately, or with anybody else,” he said.

Then-transport minister Marc Garneau told a special committee on the pandemic on May 28 that “the Canadian Transportation Agency is a quasi‑judicial body that operates at arm’s length from Transport Canada and the government of Canada.”

“The Canadian Transportation Agency has ruled on this issue and has ruled that, in the present circumstances and in a non‑binding way, it is acceptable for airlines to offer credits for up to two years,” he said in response to questions on passenger refunds from Bloc Québécois transport critic Xavier Barsalou-Duval.

The Bloc MP said the newly exposed emails contradict that oft-cited reasoning by Garneau on why the federal government opted not to take action on reimbursement, even as the United States and European Union rolled out refund requirements alongside sector support last spring.

“What I saw is more that the CTA is not moving before talking to the minister’s office first. And the correspondence also shows that the full independence that the CTA is supposed to have — I’m not sure that in reality it’s as strong as the minister was pretending,” Barsalou-Duval said in an interview.

“The Trudeau government can and should leave the independent CTA to do its work so that passengers who have been waiting for more than a year can finally get the compensation they deserve,” said Conservative transport critic Stephanie Kusie.

Transport Canada rejected any suggestion that it plays a role in CTA decisions.

“The cited communication is about a decision already taken by CTA, and would not in any way influence that decision. It would not be uncommon for the agency to inform the department of an upcoming announcement or for the department to ask factual questions about announcements to be in a position to inform the minister,” Transport spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu said in an email.

“Such discussions do not impact or hinder in any way CTA’s independence or arm’s length relationship with Transport Canada.”

Critics say questions of prejudice could also come into play due to the fact the agency weighed in publicly on a matter that would come before the tribunal in the form of complaints. Air passengers have filed 16,200 complaints to the CTA since mid-March, more than 9,700 of which relate to refunds, the agency said.

Section 39 of its code of conduct states that “members shall not communicate with political actors or officials of other federal departments and agencies, provincial or foreign governments, or international organizations regarding a matter that is, was, or could be before the agency.”

Jean-Denis Pelletier, a member of the CTA between 2008 and 2013, said the body interacted only rarely with the federal government during his tenure.

“The CTA is an independent organism. They work a little bit with Transport Canada, but not very closely,” he said, adding that there was “not much” correspondence.

The agency qualified in its vouchers statement last year that “any specific situation brought before the CTA will be examined on its merits.”

“Since the CTA regulates the transportation industry, exchanges between the CTA, Transport Canada and a wide range of stakeholders are routine. In all cases, the CTA decisions on any matters before it are made independently and impartially,” the agency said in an email.

“Any communications with Transport Canada staff would be simply for information purposes and to ensure, especially in the face of circumstances like those at the beginning of the pandemic, that different parts of the federal system don’t work at cross-purposes.”

Some communication is indeed mandated, with the Canadian Transportation Act requiring the CTA to alert the minister of any regulation it proposes. The stance on vouchers had little if anything to do with new regulations, however.

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach wondered “whether the statement actually kind of prejudices their eventual investigation and adjudication of the complaints.”

“They chose to equate the two, essentially saying that a voucher is as good as a refund in those cases,” he added.

“I believe that all of this has pointed to the fact that there need to be changes made to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Garneau directed the agency on Dec. 21 to strengthen the refund rules, which have not yet been put into place.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Just Posted

Aerial view of a wildfire at 16 Mile, 11 kilometres northwest of Cache Creek, that started on the afternoon of June 15. (Photo credit: BC Wildfire Service)
Wildfire at 16 Mile now being held

Wildfire started on the afternoon of June 15 at 16 Mile, east of Highway 97

The Desert Daze Music Festival is doggone good fun, as shown in this photo from the 2019 festival, and it will be back in Spences Bridge this September. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
‘Best Little Fest in the West’ returning to Spences Bridge

Belated 10th anniversary Desert Daze festival going ahead with music, vendors, workshops, and more

Internet speed graphic, no date. Photo credit: Pixabay
Study asks for public input to show actual Internet speeds in BC communities

Federal maps showing Internet speeds might be inflated, so communities lose out on faster Internet

Fireworks are among the things now banned throughout the Kamloops Fire Centre, as the weather heats up and a dry summer looms. (Photo credit: Black Press files)
Category 2 and 3 open fires, fireworks now banned in Kamloops Fire Centre

Ban on certain types of fires and fire activities in place until Oct. 15

Cache Creek Village office, date unknown. (Photo credit: Wendy Coomber)
Cache Creek eyes water conservation bylaw as usage increases

Water bylaw was considered in 2019 but did not move forward

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

For more than a year, Rene Doyharcabal and a small group of neighbours in Langley’s Brookswood neighbourhood have been going out every evening to show support for first responders by honking horns and banging pots and drums. Now, a neighbour has filed a noise complaint. (Langley Advance Times file)
Noise complaint filed against nightly show of support for health care workers in B.C. city

Langley Township contacted group to advise of complaint, but no immediate action is expected

A nurse prepares a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Yukon Convention Centre in Whitehorse on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Thomas
Vancouver couple pleads guilty to breaking Yukon COVID rules, travelling for vaccine

Chief Judge Michael Cozens agreed with a joint sentencing submission,

An inmate in solitary confinement given lunch on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN/Lars Hagberg
22-hour cap on solitary confinement for youth in custody still too long: B.C. lawyer

Jennifer Metcalfe was horrified to hear a youth had spent a total of 78 straight days in isolation

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

B.C. Premier John Horgan listens as Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents the province’s latest budget, April 20, 2021. The budget projects $19 billion in deficits over three years. (Hansard TV)
B.C. government budget balloons, beyond COVID-19 response

Provincial payroll up 104,000 positions, $10 billion since 2017

COVID-related trash is washing up on shorelines across the world, including Coldstream’s Kal Beach, as pictured in this May 2021 photograph. (Jennifer Smith - Black Press)
Shoreline cleanup finds COVID-related trash increased during height of the pandemic

Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup reports litter from single-use food packaging nearly doubled

Doctor David Vallejo and his fiancee Doctor Mavelin Bonilla hold photos of themselves working, as they kiss at their home in Quito, Ecuador, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Doctor Vallejo and Doctor Bonilla suspended their wedding in order to tend to COVID-19 patients and in the process Vallejo got sick himself with the disease, ending up in an ICU for several days. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
Love, sacrifice and surviving COVID-19: one couple’s story

COVID hits Ecuadorian doctors who delayed wedding to treat sick

St. Joseph's Mission site is located about six kilometres from Williams Lake First Nation. (Photo submitted)
Williams Lake First Nation to search residential school site for unmarked graves

St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School operated from 1886 to 1981

Most Read