Government asks for more time in disclosing massive trove of pandemic response documents to MPs

OTTAWA — Canada’s top federal civil servant says hundreds of government employees are working to compile an enormous trove of documents — potentially a million pages or more — related to the government’s pandemic response, but they need more time before it can be disclosed to MPs to examine.

Depending on how heavily the documents are redacted, they could shed light on the government’s COVID-19 vaccine plan and why Canada hasn’t been able to produce some of the vaccines domestically.

The document disclosure was ordered in a Conservative motion passed in the House of Commons on Oct. 26. The motion would have MPs study every aspect of Canada’s pandemic response, from vaccine procurement to rapid testing to paid sick leave and more.

The motion gave the government until Nov. 30 to disclose the documents, but allowed a seven-day extension if necessary.

“Preliminary estimates suggest that there are millions of pages of relevant documents,” said a letter from Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart to the Commons health committee.

Shugart said compiling the documents has entailed “a significant amount of time and resources.” He said the public service is working to narrow the scope, but the government will need until Dec. 7 to hand it over.

“Even with this scoping down, we estimate that we will be dealing with hundreds of thousands of pages of material,” Shugart’s letter said. “For this reason, it will not be possible to process these records and fully meet the requirements of the motion within the timelines proscribed.”

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When ready, the documents will go to the House of Commons law clerk, Philippe Dufresne, to review for redactions for personal privacy and national security. The motion also allows redactions on information that could interfere with vaccine contract negotiations.

Opposition MPs are wary about what the law clerk will receive, as they’ve already been battling the government over how it applied redactions to WE Charity documents instead of letting the law clerk do the work.

However, Dufresne told the health committee on Friday that he hasn’t yet received any documents, so he can’t say whether the government is doing its own redacting.

Dufresne also told the committee he can’t yet say what information he’d have to redact to protect vaccine contract negotiations.

“Do you anticipate a delivery schedule for vaccines being something that you would redact?” asked Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner.

“We would have to see what is provided to us by the government, and we would have to see the context,” Dufresne responded.

It will take a while for MPs to see the full trove. Dufresne said he’s added staff resources, but his office can still likely only process 50,000 pages a week.

For that reason, the committee passed a motion — despite Liberal objections — to have Dufresne’s office process the vaccine-related documents as his first priority.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: btaplatt

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