For more than 12 years, I have proudly worked at NATIONAL Public Relations, whose head office is in Montreal. I am appearing before the committee today in my capacity as president of NATIONAL Public Relations. I am joined by my colleague Chantal Benoit, director of consumer relations at our Montreal office and manager of our mandate with WE Charity.
Before Chantal provides an overview of our mandate with WE Charity, I'd like to say a few words about our firm and what we do.
Today, NATIONAL has nine offices in Canada, from coast to coast. Our pursuit of excellence and our desire to help our clients succeed drive us as we deliver on every single mandate. Each of our 300 professionals embodies our values: quality, commitment, innovation, collaboration, integrity, accountability and respect.
Year after year, more than a thousand Canadian organizations entrust our firm with mandates. The organizations range from small and medium-size enterprises, large corporations and not-for-profit organizations to professional associations, public corporations and umbrella organizations. The mandates can be very straightforward or incredibly demanding, from organizations big or small.
Our area of activity is very broad, attesting to our ability to deliver on the most complex mandates: social acceptability, public affairs, business communications, financial communications, digital communications, stakeholder relations, consumer relations, media relations and so on.
By choosing to work with NATIONAL and surround themselves with seasoned professionals who are active in society and the community, our clients, including WE Charity, are putting their confidence in a partner they can rely on. They look to us for our expertise and our commitment.
Our mandate with WE Charity is no different from the work we do for our other clients. In a world where the number of ways to communicate continues to grow and the flow of information continues to skyrocket, we help our clients promote their projects and organizations more effectively and engage in dialogue with their target audiences.
Clients like WE Charity also look to us for our ingenuity, effectiveness and ability to deploy efforts rapidly in the face of heavy demands and tight deadlines.
WE Charity approached us for support because we have the experience and skills to deliver on such a demanding mandate. A WE employee first reached out to a colleague in our Toronto office on May 15 via LinkedIn. She wanted to arrange a meeting to explain what they wanted to do and initiate discussions so that we could put together a service proposal. That took quite a few days given the complexity and scope of the project.
Cabinet approved the program on May 22, and we began working on the mandate on May 25. At no time were we involved in the contract negotiations between WE Charity and the federal government, either directly or indirectly. What is more, we were never in contact with elected officials or public servants to help WE Charity obtain the contract. We never did any lobbying on behalf of WE Charity.
My colleague Chantal Benoit will now speak to the specifics of the mandate we were given by WE Charity.
Thank you, Mr. Daraiche.
Good morning, Mr. Chair, Madam Clerk and members of the committee.
National's mandate with WE Charity was for communications. Our mandate was not to manage the Canada student service grant program in Quebec, nor to act on behalf of WE Charity as an intermediary between them and the federal government.
Our role was to provide communication support to WE to raise awareness for the grant program among non-profit organizations, students and other stakeholders in Quebec and in francophone communities outside of Quebec. The objective was to help as many non-profits and students as possible get through the COVID-19 pandemic during the summer.
In order for as many people as possible to receive help and for students and non-profits to register, they first had to know about the program. Our job was to raise awareness of the Canada student service grant program among the target groups. Our mandate included preparing the French content, providing program-related media monitoring and developing the social media content.
It was very clear from our earliest discussions that this was a very large-scale project, one with a very ambitious objective and, above all, a very tight deadline—barely a month. Our work on the mandate began on May 25 and ended on July 3, 2020, when WE Charity transferred responsibility for the program to the federal government.
Our mandate was to support WE Charity for its communications, to raise awareness of the program.
Mr. Daraiche would be happy to answer any questions you have to the best of his knowledge.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
My name is Martin Perelmuter, and I'm the president and co-founder of Speakers' Spotlight.
Twenty-five years ago, my wife Farah and I got married, quit our jobs and started a business together out of a spare bedroom in our apartment. We had no speakers, no clients, no industry contacts or experience, and in fact, we had virtually no business experience of any kind, but we believed that, if we built our business on a foundation of trust and integrity, then the strength of our relationships with clients and speakers would ultimately determine our company's success.
Over the past 25 years, thanks to a tremendous amount of hard work, some good luck and the kindness of many people along the way, we've built a company we're extremely proud of. We're still a small business and today have a team of 27 of the most dedicated, hard-working and caring people I've ever known. We're honoured to represent many of the country's leading thinkers, inspiring individuals and outstanding speakers.
Our speakers' experience is as broad as it is deep, and they are all leaders in their respective fields, which include business, politics, sports, media, academia, science, technology, culture and entertainment. We book these individuals to speak on various topics from leadership and management to strategy and culture, to disruption and innovation, marketing and branding, diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, inspiration and more. Our clients represent a cross-section of leading corporations, associations, government agencies, colleges and universities, charities, health care organizations, school boards and educational institutions. Our expertise is connecting the right talent with an organization and managing the logistical arrangements so that everything runs smoothly.
A few of our speakers include astronaut Chris Hadfield, Olympian and mental health advocate Clara Hughes, technology entrepreneur Michele Romanow and CFL icon and humanitarian Michael “Pinball” Clemons, to name just a few.
Nine months ago, when COVID-19 hit, like for so many people and so many businesses, our world changed practically overnight. Our industry, the events industry, along with restaurants, bars and the travel and tourism industry, has been hit particularly hard. In just a few days in mid-March, we saw hundreds of speaking engagements that were to take place over the next three months, normally one of our busiest times of the year, wiped off the calendar. When the dust settled, it became clear that not only spring events were cancelled, but we likely wouldn't see any in-person conferences or events for the remainder of the year and beyond.
In the middle of a pandemic, with everyone working from home, we had to completely reimagine and reinvent our business on the fly. That's what we did. We pivoted to offering virtual speaking engagements to our clients. Needless to say, it was tough going, as very few clients were familiar with virtual platforms, and as a result, our business was down significantly. Of course, this is not just our story. This is the story of so many small businesses in Canada and throughout the world.
This brings us to the summer, when we received and responded to an order from the ethics committee to provide records pertaining to a wide range of speaking engagements dating back to 2008. Before I speak to our experience with the committee, I think it is important to make clear that we have no knowledge pertaining to the operations of WE Charity, the Liberal government or the Canada student service grant program. Like most Canadians, the first time we heard about the program was in late June or early July when we read about it in media reports.
I'd also like to make it clear that neither our company, Speakers' Spotlight, nor my wife Farah or I personally have any political affiliation. We have never actively been involved with any political organization, and I don't think we've ever even donated to a political party or campaign. In fact, if you look at our roster of political speakers, you'll see we work with people from across the political spectrum, including Rona Ambrose, Preston Manning, John Baird and Ambassador Bruce Heyman.
Given the scope of the request and the fact that we were given less than three business days to provide records dating back 12 years while our entire team was working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was impossible for us to meet the timeline set by the committee. Consequently, we asked for an extension to address the order, which was granted to us.
Prior to the new deadline, we were contacted by the clerk of the committee and told not to submit a response due to the prorogation of Parliament. In mid-October, we were once again contacted by the clerk of the committee, and once again, we promptly responded to the clerk's communication and let her know we would co-operate when called upon. On November 17, we received an extract from the Minutes of Proceedings of this committee containing an order for the production of documents. We complied and produced the documents on November 23, yet we've been the subject of many ridiculous claims and false accusations, which I won't dignify by repeating here.
On behalf of my staff, however, I must bring up the fact that, for the past three months, our company has been the subject of harassment, including personal threats to us and our staff. We have also been the target of a campaign designed to discredit us personally and cause reputational damage to our company. This is all outlined in my November 12 letter to you, Mr. Chairman, which I understand has been distributed to all members of this committee.
These events have transpired, despite the fact that we have treated this matter extremely seriously and at all times have responded to and communicated with the committee, following its requests and instructions. We're private citizens in a private company who have been needlessly dragged into the middle of this political firestorm and find ourselves caught in the crossfire.
Finally, I wish to remind members of the committee, as holders of public office in these increasingly divisive times, that your words and actions have consequences and that private citizens should not be used as tools to further political ambitions or agendas.
I now welcome your questions related to the files are that the subject of this order.
Thank you very much, Chair.
First of all, to the witnesses, thank you very much for appearing before us here this morning.
If my colleagues won't do it, I will do it. Speaking to Mr. Perelmuter, I will apologize on behalf of those of us on this side for the distress that your employees and your company have experienced as a result of the actions of certain colleagues on this committee.
I understand that we, as parliamentarians, sit in a very privileged position and we have the bully pulpit and so on. To be casting those kinds of aspersions and putting people at risk.... I do apologize, certainly, for this side of the committee.
I want to thank the NATIONAL representatives.
You do honourable work, and I'm very curious to learn more about how you do what you do.
Chair, I find it curious that members of this committee were very keen to have these witnesses here, but we only have an hour to ask questions. I invite the witnesses, if they want to follow up in writing with more detailed answers to any of the questions that we ask here today, to please do so.
My first question, in fact, Mr. Perelmuter has already referred to. Indeed, can you tell me whether you have ever been a member of the Liberal Party in any way, shape or form? I'm making an allusion here to the McCarthy era when many innocent people were dragged in front of committees and aspersions were made.
Mr. Perelmuter, can you tell me, to your knowledge, if you or your company has in any way acted in an improper manner?
I understand how politics works as an outsider and I understand that it can be a tough business. I understand that you may have disagreements among or between yourselves in the parties. As members of public office I think you signed up for that and you've taken on a public role, so if you don't like something the other party is doing, I understand the need to call each other out at times. I think you should be civil, but I understand how that works.
We are tangentially connected to this matter. As I mentioned in my statement, we don't have any knowledge of the student service grant. We have nothing to do with that.
It was very surprising, a week after we received a call from the clerk of this committee telling us not to submit documents, to receive a letter from a member of the committee, on House of Commons letterhead, asking us to “do the right thing” and release all the documents.
We retained a counsel who is an expert in privacy law because we realized from the beginning that this was probably a complex matter and we probably should make sure we proceeded properly at all times. I sent that letter to our counsel and she was actually quite upset by the letter. She said that it was an illegal request and that if we complied with the request it would be breaking Canadian law. We would be violating our clients' privacy rights.
I was surprised that a member of this committee would ask us to do that, to contravene Canadian law. What was more surprising was that I received the letter on the morning of August 27, and at the same time I received it, I also received a letter from a journalist, a reporter from The Canadian Press, attaching a copy of the letter and asking for my comment.
I was actually confused and baffled at how a reporter had a letter that was sent to me that I hadn't even had a chance to read yet. We don't have time to get into it, but a series of events that happened after that put us in a really difficult situation, something I've never experienced before.
As a leader of a small company I feel that my first obligation is to ensure the physical, emotional and mental health safety and well-being of our employees. For the first time in my 25-year career I was in a situation where I didn't feel that I could properly protect everyone from what was going on. We had to get the police involved. It was a really nasty situation.
I appreciate your valuable time.
To start, I want to provide you with some context for what is happening here. It is important for you to understand the situation we, as parliamentarians, find ourselves in. Much can be blamed on the pandemic, to be sure, but taxpayer money is a precious thing.
I know what you've been through and it makes me very uncomfortable because we have had the same experience. We need to know the facts as they pertain to taxpayer money, and that is why we are here today. You should take pride in speaking up today to set the record straight by answering our questions. I, too, have some questions at random.
I had a look at the documentation. My first question is for Mr. Perelmuter.
Mr. Perelmuter, I would like to know when you became involved in the speaking engagements and contracts relating to Mrs. Grégoire and from 2014 to today.
I would like you to tell us about your involvement with them.
We've been very busy just managing our business and trying to get through the pandemic and so forth, but certainly it's crossed my mind. Probably when I have a moment to breathe and things slow down a bit towards the holidays, I may reach out.
I should say that I am not a litigious person. I've never brought suit against anyone. I would not want to do that, but if there were ever a situation where I would consider it, this would be one, because it's been really disappointing that this would be brought on at all, and in particular, the circumstances and how it came about.... It was just unnecessary.
Mr. Angus mentioned something earlier about getting answers. I believe in this process. I believe in this committee. That's why we're here. That's why we've co-operated through the whole process. That's why it's doubly disturbing, because if the work was done here at the committee, I would have no issue with answering questions and providing the information or documentation that was requested. That's the disappointment: It was taken outside of the committee and thrown into the public sphere, I guess, and we were just held out to dry.
We're not a big company. We can't hire a communications firm like NATIONAL Public Relations or someone like that. We're dealing with this on our own, and it's not fun when the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is check to see what kind of nonsense is on social media and what people are saying or doing. It's been tough.
I'll be specific about what I'm trying to find out, Mr. Daraiche.
A major rule was broken in the awarding of the contract to WE Charity: an official languages impact analysis was not conducted, even though the Treasury Board Secretariat requires one. From the discussions that took place, I gather that WE Charity realized it could not provide service to francophones in Canada and decided to quickly reach for the panic button.
You seized the opportunity, and there's nothing wrong with that. That is your job, as a communications firm. Nevertheless, that back and forth, those discussions, take on major importance for those of us trying to figure out how a contract this big escaped the watchful eye of Treasury Board, the agency that was supposed to conduct the official languages impact analysis.
The reason we asked you to provide us with a copy of the contract is to shed light on that, not to find out any trade secrets or what have you. All we want to know is how that step was missed for a contract of this size.
You said you started contacting MPs after the press conference, and I think that was in NATIONAL's interest. There's something I want to check with you, though. At 8:06 a.m., before the press conference, we received communications from NATIONAL asking for our co-operation. It's a small detail, but since we are dealing with ethics, we should put things in their proper context.
How did you find out that your contract was terminated?
What information did you receive telling you that your services were no longer needed?
I appreciate the motion because I was very confused this morning when I was trying to get an answer. It's nothing against NATIONAL PR. I just want to get clarification because they said their job was communications and media, which is very different from doing actual outreach and building the organizations in Quebec. However, at the August 13 meeting of the finance committee, WE said:
NATIONAL PR was hired to assist us in the process to reach out to francophone and Quebec organizations especially in the area of engagement of not-for-profit organizations.
By that it seems that they had a very specific mandate of doing the outreach, but when we were told they were there for communications and media, which makes sense because they're a media company, there's a gap that I'd like explained.
I understand that they were only involved for a month, but when only 4% of the young people who signed up were from Quebec, something went wrong. I don't think this was probably something that went wrong on NATIONAL PR's end, but I'd like to know what they were mandated for. We have to understand why, in the space of a month, 96% of the people who signed up came from other parts of Canada and only 4% came from Quebec.
One of the reasons we put all these parameters on the first set of documents was that we were told we shouldn't be dealing with the Trudeau family, and these were individuals.
I think it's a different thing when we're dealing with a contract and a mandate about how the federal government contract was going to be spent. I am very wary about saying we could only see it without staff. It's something we should be able to discuss in camera and then decide if it belongs in our committee report. If it has to do with the mandate of what they were given and what they were supposed to deliver, we have to be able to report whether they were asked to this job and it didn't seem to have been done.
On the issue of trade secrets, I think that would be very specific.
As for emails with names, if they're people who are involved directly with WE, we want to know. Who were the civil servants? We want to know. We can block out their email addresses. I think maybe it could be done, if the clerk can do it, but I'm very wary of saying nobody else is allowed and we have to have this top secret agenda.
That wasn't what was done with the finance documents. They were turned over to finance and the government redacted many, but I think we have to have a reasonable approach to this. I say we look at it in camera and decide. Considering our respect for the privacy laws and the fact that as the privacy committee we have to respect those, I think I can trust my colleagues that we can agree to do this in a proper manner However, we have to be able to report on whether there's something in that mandate that should have been dealt with or shouldn't have been dealt with. We have to be able to put that in the report.