Tories play down lucrative contract given to Vancouver candidate

The Conservative party was playing down concerns Thursday about how one of its Vancouver candidates got a lucrative federal contract.
Wai Young said in a statement Thursday that her company has been in business for 15 years and received contracts from governments of all political stripes. ((Wai Young's official website))

The Conservative party was playing down concerns Thursday about how one of its Vancouver candidates got a lucrative federal contract.

Vancouver South candidate Wai Young's consulting firm received $578,590 from Citizenship and Immigration Canada to stage a Toronto conference last June on teaching English to new immigrants.

The six-month, publicly-tendered contract was awarded in April, three months after Young was nominated to run for the Tories in the Liberal stronghold.

Incumbent Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, a former British Columbia NDP premier who has held the riding since 2004, said the contract has at least the appearance of pork barrelling.

"The optics are terrible," Dosanjh said.

Young, 48, was not available for an interview but her campaign manager, Lois Johnson, said Young was nominated in January for what was expected to be an imminent election.

"That didn't happen and in the spring when it looked like we would be going until the fall of 2009, she carried on with her business," Johnson said. "She felt that taking a short-term contract before the election started would not be a problem."

In a statement released Thursday, Young said her company, which works with all levels of government to develop social policy and programs, has been in business for 15 years and received contracts from governments of all political stripes.

Incumbent Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh says the contract awarded to Wai Young has at least the appearance of pork barrelling. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

"We can't expect people to sit on hold and not make money for a living between waiting for a federal election to happen," Johnson said.

Young contacted the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner on Sept. 5, two days before Prime Minister Stephen Harper called an election for Oct. 14.

In her statement, Young said she was told the commissioner had no jurisdiction over candidates not in office "and that she was free to operate her business as she normally would."

However, Jocelyne Brisebois, the commissioner's communications officer, said a commission adviser simply told Young she was not subject to conflict-of-interest legislation covering public office holders or the code governing MPs.

"For this reason we didn't provide any advice to her, nor discuss the matter further with her," Brisebois said from Ottawa.

In her statement, Young said she anticipated her opponents might draw conclusions about the contract, which expires the day after the election, so she took a leave of absence from her company for the duration of the campaign.

But Dosanjh wondered why Young didn't simply abandon pursuit of the contract and how Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley could approve a substantial contract to a Tory candidate "in an election that might be any day?"

Dosanjh said Harper should also explain the circumstances more fully.

"Mr. Harper has to provide some comfort to Canadians that this was not pork-barrel politics in the nick of time just before an election passing money to a political candidate's company," he said.

Citizenship and Immigration spokeswoman Danielle Norris said the department's Ontario regional office used its own and Treasury Board guidelines and policies to assess the bidders.

"This is an open, fair and competitive process," Norris said in an e-mail from Ottawa. "Political affiliation is not a consideration in assessing applications."

This isn't the first government money linked to a Tory candidate to come under scrutiny.

Last June, Defence Minister Peter McKay, the political minister for Nova Scotia, handed a $142,700 grant to a women's organization headed by Rosamond Luke, who later became the Conservatives' candidate in Halifax.

Luke stepped down as a candidate just days after the election call when it emerged she had a criminal record for uttering threats.