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Don't expect Liberals to unseal the U.S. Steel 'secret deal'

What was in the previous government’s “secret deal” to drop its suit against U.S. Steel in 2011? The Liberal government says it won’t unilaterally open that settlement.

Liberals won't unilaterally open the deal struck in 2011 when Harper Tories dropped suit

MP Bob Bratina, centre, attended and spoke at a "Day of Action" for U.S. Steel Canada pensioners in January. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Six months after slamming the previous government's handling of the U.S. Steel file on the campaign trail, the federal Liberal government won't open up the "secret deal" struck between the previous federal administration and U.S. Steel.

That doesn't sit well with Scott Duvall, a former steelworker and MP for Hamilton Mountain. He serves as the NDP's pensions critic.

"They said at the beginning of their campaign that they were disappointed in the Conservatives, that they would use every available tool to open up that deal," he said. "It's been six months into the session now and they haven't even opened up the toolbox as far as I'm concerned."

It was a common question in last fall's federal campaign around Hamilton:

What was in the previous government's "secret deal" to drop its suit against U.S. Steel in 2011 after it moved steel production out of Canada and broke promises made when it acquired Stelco in 2007?

Now, the Liberal government says it won't unilaterally open that settlement, but would support U.S. Steel, or the judge overseeing the company's bankruptcy protection proceeding, deciding to do so.

One Hamilton Liberal MP said he's moved on.

"It doesn't matter whether we figure that out and make that known," said Bob Bratina, MP for Hamilton East-Stoney Creek. "The government of the day settled out of court and that settlement is what we're living with now."

The province put up a $3M transition fund to help pay for urgent health care benefits for retired U.S. Steel Canada employees after the retirees had their benefits cut off Oct. 9. (John Rieti/CBC)
Were the Liberal government to break the confidentiality of that settlement and unilaterally open it, they'd open themselves to lawsuits from U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh, Bratina said.

"If we release the confidential deal, a lawsuit like that against the federal government would not be $50,000, it'd be millions of dollars," Bratina said. "Why would we throw those millions away? It's going to solve our curiosity, period."

Bratina said the more important action was to reorganize a "steel caucus" for members from all parties to be briefed by steel industry experts and workers so that they can lobby for a viable steel industry in Canada.

That caucus is expected to meet next week.

And Bratina's colleagues, Liberal MPs Karina Gould and Filomena Tassi, said they're working to keep the plight of U.S. Steel pensioners on the radar in Ottawa.

'Understand first of all what happened'

Bratina, who served as Hamilton's mayor from 2010 to 2014, was of a different mind about the secret deal last fall.

Bob Bratina hugged Liberal supporters after his victory as new MP of Hamilton East-Stoney Creek in October 2015. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)
Bratina said on election night one of his first orders of business as the newly elected Liberal MP for Hamilton East-Stoney Creek would be to explore how to "open up the so-called secret deal".

"It's only fair to the pensioners and people in crisis right now to understand first of all what happened, and second to understand what remedies we can take to mitigate the hardships that have been created," he said then.

But once he got in to office, he said, he had conversations with officials in the ministry formerly known as Industry Canada. "I talked to the guy who helps write the deals," he said on Tuesday.

"Before I was in government I was thinking along those lines, too," he said.

But he said he was told there's no "smoking gun" in the secret deal. He's satisfied with that answer.

'The people want to know'

Hamilton Mountain MP Scott Duvall, seen at an NDP campaign rally last summer, serves as pensions critic for the federal NDP and said the Liberals haven't done enough to support steelworkers since taking office in October. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)
Duvall said unless Bratina has read the agreement himself, he's skeptical.

"I don't know how he can make that statement if he hasn't seen the agreement," Duvall said. "If that is the fact, then why not open it up to the public?

"The people want to know," Duvall continued. "They're curious and now they're suspicious. What harm can it do?"

Beyond that, Duvall said, the move feels like an abrupt change from election-time rhetoric.

"Now all of a sudden, they get into power" and the Liberals cite confidentiality, Duvall said. "That's the same thing the conservatives were saying since day one."

Legal possibility

The next step in a court process that could unseal the settlement is set for April 29.

That's where Bratina's colleague, MP Filomena Tassi, is placing her hopes – and did even at the time of the election – for finding out the terms of what happened. Tassi was elected from the Liberal party to represent Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas in the fall.

"I've heard the frustrations from pensioners and employees with respect to them wanting to know what's in the deal," she said. "I understand the frustration. We would like to see the deal opened – but the court has to make the decision."

Tassi and Bratina recently met with union reps from U.S. Steel's mills in Hamilton and Lake Erie.

"What's been communicated to us, they're saying the right things," said Gary Howe, president of the Local 1005 steelworkers union. "They don't want a hedge fund to own us. They'd like to see a strong steel industry."

MP Filomena Tassi won the newly created Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas riding in October and said she's heard countless stories of pain and uncertainty from pensioners. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
And Tassi said she's also recently met with ministers and their staff to make sure "that Ottawa is kept up to date as to what is happening here," she said.

Tassi said she's had many meetings and calls with worried pensioners who are moving to less expensive accommodation, or worrying about filling their next prescription.

A provincial fund meant to fill some of those gaps was set to expire last month, but has been extended so pensioners can fill another 30-day round of prescriptions, Howe said. But the solution isn't permanent.

Bratina and Tassi said the government hopes to figure out ways to work with the province "to see how we can alleviate as much of the hardship" pensioners whose benefits were cut last fall are facing, Bratina said.

"How we can do that remains to be seen."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

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