Minister of Transport Marc Garneau takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Emails reveal close communication between government, transport regulator on refunds

‘It shows that they have not been acting independently… a judge who acts independently would not go and chat with lawyers for one of the sides,’ says Gabor Lukacs

Advocates, experts and opposition MPs say correspondence showing close communication between the federal Transport Department and the Canadian Transportation Agency around passenger refunds throws into question the independence of the CTA, an arm’s-length regulator.

Emails tabled with the House of Commons transport committee reveal that senior officials last spring were in frequent contact about the agency’s public stance on flight vouchers, which airlines cited repeatedly to justify withholding reimbursement for passengers.

Days before its release, senior policy advisors discussed a “Statement on Vouchers” which was posted by the CTA on March 25, 2020. It stated that flight credit constitutes a “reasonable approach” toward passengers left out of pocket by flights cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am on a Min/DM (minister/deputy minister) call and I’m sure the question will come up. Any insight you can provide quickly?” wrote Transport Canada’s Vincent Millette to the CTA’s Caitlin Hurcomb on the morning of March 23 regarding the “refund and voucher issue.”

“This was discussed between the Chair, the DM … your ADM” and others — at least one name is redacted — Hurcomb replied minutes later, referring to agency chair Scott Streiner and Transport Canada’s deputy minister and an assistant deputy minister.

“The statement indicates that the CTA would consider vouchers acceptable ‘refunds’ for those airlines that do require reimbursement in their tariff (contract).”

The back-and-forth was part of a larger stack of emails, presentations and internal documents exchanged by the two bodies and tabled with the transport committee.

Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group, says the redacted correspondence reveals little evidence so far of pressure from government on the regulator, but that the frequent contact between the two indicates a relationship more hand-in-glove than arm’s length.

“It shows that they have not been acting independently … A judge who acts independently would not go and chat with lawyers for one of the sides separately, or with anybody else,” he said.

Then-transport minister Marc Garneau told a special committee on the pandemic on May 28 that “the Canadian Transportation Agency is a quasi‑judicial body that operates at arm’s length from Transport Canada and the government of Canada.”

“The Canadian Transportation Agency has ruled on this issue and has ruled that, in the present circumstances and in a non‑binding way, it is acceptable for airlines to offer credits for up to two years,” he said in response to questions on passenger refunds from Bloc Québécois transport critic Xavier Barsalou-Duval.

The Bloc MP said the newly exposed emails contradict that oft-cited reasoning by Garneau on why the federal government opted not to take action on reimbursement, even as the United States and European Union rolled out refund requirements alongside sector support last spring.

“What I saw is more that the CTA is not moving before talking to the minister’s office first. And the correspondence also shows that the full independence that the CTA is supposed to have — I’m not sure that in reality it’s as strong as the minister was pretending,” Barsalou-Duval said in an interview.

“The Trudeau government can and should leave the independent CTA to do its work so that passengers who have been waiting for more than a year can finally get the compensation they deserve,” said Conservative transport critic Stephanie Kusie.

Transport Canada rejected any suggestion that it plays a role in CTA decisions.

“The cited communication is about a decision already taken by CTA, and would not in any way influence that decision. It would not be uncommon for the agency to inform the department of an upcoming announcement or for the department to ask factual questions about announcements to be in a position to inform the minister,” Transport spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu said in an email.

“Such discussions do not impact or hinder in any way CTA’s independence or arm’s length relationship with Transport Canada.”

Critics say questions of prejudice could also come into play due to the fact the agency weighed in publicly on a matter that would come before the tribunal in the form of complaints. Air passengers have filed 16,200 complaints to the CTA since mid-March, more than 9,700 of which relate to refunds, the agency said.

Section 39 of its code of conduct states that “members shall not communicate with political actors or officials of other federal departments and agencies, provincial or foreign governments, or international organizations regarding a matter that is, was, or could be before the agency.”

Jean-Denis Pelletier, a member of the CTA between 2008 and 2013, said the body interacted only rarely with the federal government during his tenure.

“The CTA is an independent organism. They work a little bit with Transport Canada, but not very closely,” he said, adding that there was “not much” correspondence.

The agency qualified in its vouchers statement last year that “any specific situation brought before the CTA will be examined on its merits.”

“Since the CTA regulates the transportation industry, exchanges between the CTA, Transport Canada and a wide range of stakeholders are routine. In all cases, the CTA decisions on any matters before it are made independently and impartially,” the agency said in an email.

“Any communications with Transport Canada staff would be simply for information purposes and to ensure, especially in the face of circumstances like those at the beginning of the pandemic, that different parts of the federal system don’t work at cross-purposes.”

Some communication is indeed mandated, with the Canadian Transportation Act requiring the CTA to alert the minister of any regulation it proposes. The stance on vouchers had little if anything to do with new regulations, however.

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach wondered “whether the statement actually kind of prejudices their eventual investigation and adjudication of the complaints.”

“They chose to equate the two, essentially saying that a voucher is as good as a refund in those cases,” he added.

“I believe that all of this has pointed to the fact that there need to be changes made to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Garneau directed the agency on Dec. 21 to strengthen the refund rules, which have not yet been put into place.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Just Posted

VicPd are asking for the public’s help in finding Camper, a lost pit bull who ran away after their owner’s van was reportedly attacked by a man with a hammer on June 12. (Courtesy of VicPD)
Edmonton man reportedly smashes van’s windows with hammer while woman and her dog inside

VicPD are asking for help to find Camper, the woman’s dog who ran away during the Friday incident

Red arrow shows the existing warehouse that is home to a variety of specialized equipment used by the Capital Region Emergency Services Telecommunications (CREST). The service provider is looking for a new home that will protect the equipment in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. (Google Maps)
CREST telecoms look to find a post-seismic facility in Greater Victoria

The move will better protect equipment vital to its 50 emergency service clients across the CRD

(Black Press Media file photo)
FRESH AND LOCAL: Greater Victoria farm markets ready to greet shoppers

A list of markets on the go this spring and summer, right into fall

A client and a staff member embark on an art project at Oak Bay United Church. (Christine van Reewyk/News Staff)
VIDEO: Oak Bay group of adults with developmental disabilities promotes community inclusivity

Victoria Community Connections moved to Oak Bay late last year

Graeme Wright is the owner of Hullabaloo, a new ice cream and coffee food truck serving patrons at the Red Barn on West Saanich. (Photo by Megan Atkins-Baker/News Staff).
VIDEO: Cool treats, warm bevvies a specialty for new Saanich food truck

Hullabaloo owner Graeme Wright passionate about blending green space with sustainability

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Denmark soccer player Christian Eriksen collapses during game against Finland

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Rescuers free humpback ‘anchored’ down by prawn traps off Vancouver Island

Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Nathan Watts, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation near Port Alberni, shares his story of substance use, a perspective he said isn’t seen enough. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Watts)
Public shaming, hate perpetuates further substance use: UVic researcher

Longtime addict Nathan Watts offers a user’s perspective on substance use

57-year-old Kathleen Richardson was discovered deceased in her home Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Her death is considered a homicide and connected to the slain brothers found on a Naramata forest road. (Submitted)
Condolences pour in for Kathy Richardson, Naramata’s 3rd homicide victim in recent weeks

Richardson was well liked in the community, a volunteer firefighter with a home-based salon

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
More than 75% of B.C. adults have 1st dose of COVID vaccine

The federal government has confirmed a boost in the Moderna vaccine will be coming later this month

Airport ground crew offload a plane carrying just under 300,000 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine which is developed by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
1st batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccines won’t be released in Canada over quality concerns

The vaccines were quarantined in April before they were distributed to provinces

Most Read