The Department of Citizenship and Immigration spent almost $750,000 monitoring ethnic media over the past three years, including assessments of election campaign events and "perceptions" of minister Jason Kenney.
A series of contracts from March 2009 through May 2012 cost taxpayers $745,050, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information law.
Those contracts state they were for work "monitoring key words and issues related to the department's mandate."
But the more than 7,000 pages of documents reveal the media monitoring went well beyond public policy issues related to citizenship and immigration.
"A series of interviews and appearances by minister Kenney and his representatives were strong contributors to the upswing in the ministerial image," says a report from May 5, 2010, under a pie graph titled "Minister Overall Perception."
The ministerial perception charts were weekly fixtures in the lengthy media monitoring reports in the spring of 2010, when the minority Conservatives were on a constant election footing.
And while the personal Kenney pie charts vanished after the spring election window closed that year, and were not reprised, the focus of the daily media monitoring remained profoundly political.
Daily monitoring continued during the 2011 election period and included reports — graded from "very positive" to "very negative" — on campaign events by Kenney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper and their political opponents.
Kenney leads Tories' ethnic outreach
Most government departments do issue-related media monitoring, but the Citizenship and Immigration exercise appears more politically attuned.
Kenney has been described frequently — and affectionately — by his colleagues as the "minister for curry in a hurry" because of his frenetic wooing of ethnic communities on behalf of the Conservative cause.
His efforts have raised eyebrows, notably when a political staffer used Kenney's MP office letterhead to solicit $200,000 from Conservative MPs for an ad campaign in opposition-held ridings with large ethnic communities.
Reports on that controversy topped Citizenship and Immigration's daily ethnic media monitoring reports in March 2011. That same month, with an election clearly looming, the taxpayer-funded reports began being copied by email to an anonymous, private account, laurier365(at)yahoo.com, in addition to departmental officials.
The departmental headquarters, including Kenney's ministerial office, is located at 365 Laurier Ave., West, in Ottawa. The email account is no longer active.
Kenney's spokeswoman Ana Curic said in an email that "none of these decisions relating to media monitoring by the department are made (or were made) by the minister's office," and referred all comment to the civil service.
Nancy Caron, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration, said the ministerial perceptions exercise was "one trial of many" and that the department was not asked to track the issue.
"Media monitoring is something that's done all year round and it's part of the (government of Canada) communications policy — whether there's an election or not," Caron said.
As for the "laurier365" email address, Caron said it is "an external back-up email used by Citizenship and Immigration Canada's media monitoring team when the CIC email system is down or security filters inadvertently stop delivery of incoming documents."
'Understanding where the votes are'
Robert Shepherd, a Carleton University expert in public governance and ethics, said the Harper government has spent a great deal of time, energy and public dollars on communications.
"This is all about understanding where the votes are," Shepherd said in an interview.
Shepherd, who ran a management consulting firm that advised a range of federal government departments for two decades before joining Carleton's school of public policy and administration in 2007, said the practice falls into an ethical grey zone.
"If you buy into the argument that you're the government in power and the bureaucracy is there to support the executive branch, then just about anything goes," he said.
But media monitoring of partisan events — especially after an election writ is dropped — is a clear abuse of departmental resources, he added.
"If it's serving a partisan interest, then yes, that is offline — very much so when an election is on."
Partisan events monitored during election
Indeed, during the six-week election campaign in 2011, the media monitoring continued.
A report on Conservative candidate Parm Gill in Brampton, Ont., raising $25,000 during the 2011 campaign got a "positive" mention, as did Harper's campaign appearance at a Khalsa Diwan Society event in Vancouver.
"Jason Kenney: We seek a majority in Parliament" was the headline from the Mar. 31 publication Shalom Toronto, with a "positive" assessment under the subject heading "Multiculturalism — antisemitism."
Under "Immigration — Policy," the April 4 report opens with Sing Tao's item on Kenney warning that "minority or coalition government may cause economy to collapse."
There's a report on then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's campaign promise on family reunification and various reports on Liberal Ruby Dhalla — a targeted MP who lost her seat to Conservatives.
Under "Immigration — Policy," the April 7 report leads with a story from the Canadian Punjabi Post in which a campaigning Bal Gosal, now Harper's minister for sport, praised Kenney for immigration reforms, "cutting down the crime rate in Canada" and addressing human smuggling and fraudulent marriage. The coverage was rated "positive."
Caron said media monitoring is an automated system linked to keywords.
"We have to be informed of all that's going on," regardless of whether an election is underway or not, she said.