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Environment backlog puts Jim Prentice at risk of contempt charge

Environment Minister Jim Prentice speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 26, 2010.

BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS

Environment Minister Jim Prentice might find himself in contempt of Parliament if his department doesn't clear a backlog of late annual reports.

Liberal MP Derek Lee said Mr. Prentice has until next month to get Environment Canada to deliver four years of overdue documents.

If the reports don't arrive soon, Mr. Lee will ask Parliament to find Mr. Prentice in contempt. "I'd go to the floor of the House and say that this is a flagrant failure," he said Thursday.

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The veteran Toronto-area MP added: "If it's not here before the summer, I'd ... want to have a firm date commitment. I'd be checking on this some time about the 1st of June. And I'd be prepared to get up in June if needed."

Government departments are required by law to report to Parliament each year, but Environment Canada officials acknowledge they are in arrears.

"Environment Canada ... for a lot of reasons fell behind on reporting to Parliament, which is unacceptable, fell behind on a number of different legislative requirements," department official Cynthia Wright told the Commons public accounts committee.

Ms. Wright, an acting assistant deputy minister, said there's now a group within the department that stays on top of reporting to Parliament. She told the committee the overdue reports should be ready soon.

Mr. Lee warned Ms. Wright and other department officials they're running out of time.

"At some point, your minister, your department is going be looking at something on the floor of the House of Commons because some opposition member decides it's time to ring the bell," he said.

"Might be me. I don't know. I've done it before."

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Those found in contempt could be jailed. In past cases, however, most have been given a stern rebuke or been asked to apologize.

This isn't the first time Environment Canada has been slow to meet its reporting obligations.

The department was criticized in 2007 for being five years behind in posting annual reports required by law to update Canadians on how crucial water resources are being managed.

Mr. Lee is the same MP who drafted a motion this spring ordering the Commons sergeant-at-arms to seize documents related to the alleged torture of Afghan detainees.

He later toned that down with a motion to affirm Parliament's right to see the documents and set out a mechanism for protecting sensitive information, without finding anyone in contempt.

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