Tories question impartiality of lawyer named to environmental assessment panel

A lawyer on the federal panel tasked with reviewing the environmental assessment process has donated nearly $18,000 to the Liberals.

Lawyer chosen from list compiled by Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency: spokesperson

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna's chief of staff Marlo Raynolds has received $850 in donations from a lawyer appointed to the panel tasked with reviewing the environmental assessment process. (CBC)

The Conservatives are casting doubt on the impartiality of a lawyer named to the panel tasked with reviewing the environmental assessment process, saying the more than $33,000 he has donated to the Liberals, the Greens and the New Democrats over the years is a sign of bias.

"It's pretty clear that, like so many other consultation processes that the Liberal government has embarked upon, this process is designed and, quite frankly, rigged to get the outcome they want," said Conservative environment critic Ed Fast.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna announced on Monday a new four-person expert panel to study how environmental assessments are done, as a way to make sure decisions about development projects such as pipelines and mines are based on evidence — including traditional indigenous knowledge — and involve consultations with the public.

Elections Canada records show Toronto-based environmental lawyer Rod Northey, one of the new panel members, has donated a total of $17,732 to the Liberal party, its candidates or riding associations since 2004.

That includes $600 to the Banff—Airdrie Federal Liberal Association during the election campaign last summer, a riding northwest of Calgary.

The Liberal candidate was Marlo Raynolds, who lost to Conservative MP Blake Richards and is now chief of staff to McKenna.

The records show Northey also gave $250 to Raynolds during the candidate nomination contest in 2014.

The Elections Canada database, which includes four different versions of Northey's name, also shows he has given $12,700 to the Greens and $3,000 to the NDP over the same dozen years.

Northey 'wrote the book' on environmental assessments

Caitlin Workman, a spokeswoman for McKenna, said Northey was chosen because he deserved the job.

"Mr. Northey, like the rest of the panel members, was selected based on knowledge, experience and expertise related to environmental assessment processes," said Workman.

She later added he was chosen from a list of qualified candidates provided by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

"I would just add that Mr. Northey quite literally wrote the book on environmental assessment," Workman wrote in an email, referring to fact that he is the author of the Guide to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and a number of other relevant publications from his 30 years as a prominent lawyer who specializes in the field.

"So he is eminently and specifically qualified for this role," she said.

Workman did not directly answer a question as to whether McKenna had been aware of the donations, only pointing to the fact that they were disclosed publicly as the Canada Elections Act requires.

Northey has not responded to requests for comment.

Donations raise questions

The Conservative record on this front is not entirely clean.

The Canadian Press reported in 2013 that as many as one of every five chairpersons on the Employment Insurance Board of Referees had made political donations — despite government rules that forbid it — with all but one of the contributions going to Conservatives.

Fast said political donations should not automatically disqualify someone from being named to a panel like this, but they raise legitimate questions.

"Canadians have a right to look at an appointee's history to see whether there are things that could cause him to be biased and certainly that is the conclusion one would draw from seeing his donation history," Fast said.

Whatever the history, there will likely be constraints on any political donations while Northey is on the panel.

Christian Vezeau, a spokesman for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, said that while panel members are not government employees, they will nonetheless be guided by the values and ethics code for the public sector, which sets out expectations for non-partisanship and avoiding conflicts of interest.