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Lobby group asked to stop offering access to Ottawa in exchange for $10,000

The Council of Canadian Innovators has revised its membership pitch after receiving a complaint from Environment Minister’s office.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A high-tech lobby group led by a former Liberal aide has been asked to stop promising to deliver monthly meetings with a Liberal government chief of staff in exchange for $10,000.

The Council of Canadian Innovators has revised its membership pitch after receiving a complaint from the office of Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

The incident is raising questions over what critics say is the inevitable lobbying push from corporate Canada as companies target the billions in federal tax dollars on offer from a Liberal government promising to boost innovation through spending on infrastructure and direct support for private firms.

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The council's original letter sent to companies in the "Cleantech" sector outlined what chief executive officers would receive in exchange for a $10,000-a-year membership fee.

Related: Liberals' fundraising bill fails to quell cash-for-access charges

"Cleantech CEOs who are part of CCI participate in: monthly meetings with the Chief of Staff to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change," the letter states. The council also promises that members would participate in regular working groups with federal public servants and "internal planning discussions regarding the federal government's $950-million Innovation Clusters program."

The council of Canadian-based high-technology companies was formed in November, 2015, a week after the Liberal government was sworn in on a platform that included a heavy focus on encouraging innovation and growth in the technology sector.

In response to the letter, which was first reported online Tuesday by Radio-Canada, Ms. McKenna's office asked the council for revisions. A spokeswoman for the Minister said the council has only met with the chief of staff three times since October, not monthly.

"Our office has absolutely indicated [to the council] that the pitch is neither accurate nor appropriate," Caitlin Workman said.

A spokesman for the council, Patrick Searle, said on Tuesday that the letter had already been changed in June. The organization now promises "regular meetings" with Ms. McKenna's chief of staff, Marlo Raynolds, rather than monthly meetings.

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A statement from the council said it complies with all federal ethics rules, meets with all parties and that its members come from across the political spectrum.

The council currently has four full-time staff, three of whom are former Liberal staffers either federally or for Ontario Liberal politicians.

It is led by Benjamin Bergen, a former executive assistant to current Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland when she was an opposition MP. On Tuesday, Mr. Bergen initially disputed a published report describing him as Ms. Freeland's campaign manager during the 2015 campaign. When it was pointed out that he had described himself as campaign manager in a 2016 version of his C.V., Mr. Bergen said he was not the official campaign manager for Elections Canada purposes, but acted as a co-campaign manager.

He said the official campaign manager was Dana O'Born, who is now the council's director of policy. Mr. Searle, the council's director of communications, was a spokesman for Ontario Liberal cabinet ministers between 2012 and January, 2017.

The council is chaired by former BlackBerry Ltd. chief executive officer Jim Balsillie and the vice-chair is John Ruffolo, CEO of the venture-capital arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System pension fund. The original goal was to keep the membership under 50 companies but the council now has more than 65 listed on its website. The first 20 members included Shopify Inc., Hootsuite Media Inc. and Wattpad.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre said Liberal promises of innovation super clusters and other forms of direct support to private companies will inevitably lead firms to boost their lobbying efforts.

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"This sort of sleazy, cash-for-access influence-buying is an unavoidable consequence of government interference in the free enterprise system," he said. "The government is pouring billions of dollars into highly-complex corporate welfare schemes, and as soon as that happens, businesses are prepared to invest in the political access to get their hands on that money."

Mr. Poilievre said the federal Liberals are repeating the practice of the Ontario Liberal government, which rewarded some green-technology companies with controversial long-term energy deals.

"This is not new," he said. "It's just a replication of Kathleen Wynne's green-energy policy."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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