Six federal bureaucrats were drafted to pose as new Canadians for a citizenship reaffirmation ceremony broadcast on the Sun News network, an event requested by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office.
The bureaucrats smiled and held Canadian flags as the TV hosts referred to a group of 10 people as "new Canadians" that had "finally" received their citizenship.
Documents released under Access to Information legislation show that just a few weeks before Canada's Citizenship Week last October, Kenney's staff directed departmental officials to add a last-minute citizenship ceremony at the network to their list of scheduled events.
Bureaucrats scrambled to work out the logistics, suggesting to the minister's office that Sun News 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.
Reaffirmation ceremony instead
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," reads an email from a @sunmedia.ca email address, the name blacked out of the document.
Kenney's office wound up asking the department to organize a simple reaffirmation ceremony instead, a legitimate event where citizens can restate their citizenship oath.
Local department staff in Toronto then set out to find 10 new Canadians who would want 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."
Department employees stand in
In the end, only three of the 10 people the department had lined up to appear at the Sun's studios actually showed up.
But the show went on — featuring at least six federal bureaucrats. Three of those who took the oath wore identical T-shirts with a citizenship logo on it.
"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."
A Pakistani-Canadian woman and her two children were briefly interviewed. The department tweeted about the event: "10 new Canadians are reaffirming their .citizenship live at the Sun TV studio in Toronto right now."
Bolland asked the group how it felt to sing the Canadian national anthem.
Serge Sasseville, a spokesman for Sun News' parent company Quebecor Inc., said the company did "not wish to comment" about the ceremony when contacted by The Canadian Press.
But Pierson said she was shocked to hear for the first time about the stand-in "new Canadians."
"Pat and I had nothing to do with putting the ceremony together, other than hosting the formalities in the last few minutes of our show," Pierson said.
"As I understand, the people in attendance were brought by Citizenship and Immigration Canada."
A spokesman for the minister's office said it wasn't aware of the presence of the bureaucrats at the ceremony until The Canadian Press asked about the issue.
"The civil servants made some decisions without informing us or Sun News Network," said Kenney spokeswoman Candice Malcolm.
"Their decisions were well intentioned, however, we wish they had made different ones. We will make sure this does not happen again."
Malcolm added: "Welcoming proud new and old citizens to the Canadian family and watching them affirm or reaffirm their loyalty to the Queen and our proud traditions is moving and memorable. We hope to do more televised ceremonies."
'Significant amount of work ... little results'
The Toronto-based bureaucrat who oversaw the event 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.