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This story is a collaboration between The Narwhal and the Investigative Journalism Foundation.
Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and his staff have praised Enbridge and Shell in recent months, after his spouse invested in the two large fossil fuel companies.
The case is just one example of a broader trend of investment ties between Canadian lawmakers or their families, and the oil and gas industry.
In November last year, Wilkinson congratulated Enbridge for partaking in a federal government grant program to retrofit homes for energy efficiency. And during a June meeting involving a manager at Shell, Wilkinson was urged by his ministerial briefing note to “recognize the great leadership” of the multinational company headquartered in the United Kingdom for helping build electric vehicle charging stations.
Before Wilkinson presented the Enbridge grant program and met with a representative from Shell, he had already listed both companies in his public ethics disclosures, as investments made by his spouse.
Wilkinson is not the only minister whose partner invested in oil and gas. Though ministers are barred from personally holding shares in public companies, other Canadian members of Parliament can engage in stock trading and hold assets and liabilities, all sanctioned by the House of Commons Conflict of Interest Code, as long as they are not subject to special restrictions under the law like ministers are.
An investigation by The Narwhal and the Investigative Journalism Foundation found 30 MPs or their spouses took advantage of these rules between 2020 and 2022 to include oil and gas stocks in their portfolios.
All told, the company that MPs or their spouses made the most investments in during this period was Enbridge, which was listed in 18 ethics disclosures.
Fortis, a utility company that distributes natural gas and electricity, had 11 investments, as did TC Energy, the company behind the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Oilsands company Suncor had seven investments, while Pembina Pipeline had six.
There is no indication Wilkinson or any other MP violated any rules. While ministers must sell off stocks or put them in a blind trust to comply with the federal Conflict of Interest Act, their spouses are under no such obligation. A statement from Wilkinson’s spokesperson, Keean Nembhard, said the minister “is, and always has been, in full compliance with all ethics laws and guidelines applicable to his position, including proactively disclosing the assets of his family members where necessary.”
But MPs with significant holdings in fossil fuel companies will have trouble keeping such a powerful and influential lobby from influencing their work in any way, argued Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence.
“It’s going to impact their opinion, and the statements and positions that they take on issues related to climate change,” Gray said.
“The incumbent political power of the fossil fuel industry is really significant … They’re a force to be reckoned with because of the money that they can spend, disrupting the conversation around the need for political action on climate change.”
As of February 2023, the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner of Canada’s public registry showed 15 Conservatives, 14 Liberals and 1 NDP member of Parliament had reported oil and gas stocks in their ethics disclosures. The disclosures happened between 2020 and 2022 and involved stocks that were either part of the MP’s own portfolio or their spouse’s.
(During the analysis, one Conservative, Candice Bergen, resigned from her seat, meaning there are currently 29 sitting MPs who made oil and gas ethics disclosures during the period.)
The Conservatives had the most MPs of any party in Parliament who personally owned shares in oil and gas firms — 14 sitting MPs plus Bergen listed oil and gas stocks in their own portfolios — while seven of the 14 Liberals said they personally owned oil and gas stocks, and the other seven said their spouses did.
The 14 sitting Conservative MPs include key leadership figures, like deputy leader Melissa Lantsman, who has criticized the Liberal government’s carbon pricing system. Lantsman owns shares in TC Energy, Enbridge, Fortis and Algonquin Power and Utilities, which offers natural gas services.
The seven Liberals include members of the House of Commons standing committee on natural resources, such as parliamentary secretary Yvonne Jones, whose spouse owns shares in Enbridge, Fortis and Pembina Pipeline.
The one NDP member is Edmonton Strathcona MP Heather McPherson. Her spouse owns shares in Enbridge and has also received employment income from the company.
In addition to Wilkinson, five other ministers listed oil and gas stocks in their ethics disclosures. They are:
In addition to Lantsman, half a dozen prominent Conservatives listed oil and gas stocks in their ethics disclosures. They are:
In addition to fossil fuels, MPs also own shares in a variety of other sectors, including renewable energy. Lantsman, for example, also owns shares in Brookfield Renewable Corp., which operates hydroelectric, wind and solar systems, and shares in Innergex Renewable Energy, which operates hydroelectric facilities. Murray also owns shares in Innergex.
Jones is one of four MPs sitting on the 12-member natural resources committee who have listed oil and gas stocks in their ethics disclosures. The committee recently studied the implementation of a greenhouse gas emissions cap for the oil and gas sector.
George Chahal, the Liberal MP for Calgary Skyview in Alberta, owns shares in Pine Cliff Energy, a crude oil and natural gas company based in Calgary, and Buried Hill Energy, an oil and gas company headquartered in Cyprus with operations in the Caspian Sea.
Chahal has been a member of the natural resources committee since December 2021. In May 2022, he disclosed he owned shares in Buried Hill. In September that year, as the committee was wrapping up its emissions cap study, he told the ethics commissioner he had purchased shares in Pine Cliff, among other stock trades.
“I’m a member of parliament from the province of Alberta. Natural resources are an important part of the Alberta economy and our Canadian economy,” Chahal said when The Narwhal and the Investigative Journalism Foundation asked him about why he owned oil and gas stocks.
“So I support the energy sector. … We need to do more to promote clean energy across Canada and my work on the natural resources committee helps better inform me to make sure that we do have a path to get to net zero in the future.”
The third Liberal MP on the committee to have listed oil and gas stocks in their ethics disclosures is Francesco Sorbara, who owns shares in Canadian Natural Resources.
Ted Falk, the Conservative MP for Provencher in Winnipeg, has sat on the natural resources committee since October 2022, and previously sat on the finance committee from October 2020 to August 2021. In 2020 he owned shares in AltaGas and Enbridge, as well as an exchange-traded fund focusing on crude oil, although his most recent ethics declaration does not list these assets.
Asked if he had any comment on MPs holding oil and gas stocks and sitting on the natural resources committee, Falk said, “I think as long as they disclose it to the commissioner, I think that’s fine.”
While they may not be breaking any rules, MPs raise ethical concerns when they list oil and gas stocks in their disclosure statements, argued Independent Quebec Senator Rosa Galvez.
MPs like Chahal and Falk that are involved in parliamentary work that examines the oil and gas sector are of particular concern, Galvez said. Natural resources committee members would be directly interacting with those companies or their industry representatives.
Pine Cliff Energy, for example, of which Chahal owns shares, is a member of the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, an industry group that advocates for favourable government policies. The organization’s president, Tristan Goodman, a registered lobbyist, appeared as a witness during a natural resources committee meeting that addressed the emissions cap in February 2022. Chahal was at that committee meeting, and questioned Goodman.
Galvez said these kinds of situations present an “ethical problem.” Parliamentarians are “supposed to be the example for the whole of the rest of society,” she said. “So if we’re not doing that, how can we expect others to do that?”
MPs have to inform the ethics commissioner’s office about their holdings worth over $10,000, but not all of this information is published. On the public registry, Canadians can see the names of the companies MPs or their spouses have invested in. But due to rules in the conflict of interest code against publishing certain details, the public is kept in the dark about how much money those investments actually represent.
As well, under the code, MPs are given wiggle room for how and when the rules against furthering their own “private interests” when performing parliamentary duties are applied. If the matter in question is of “general application” or could apply to a “broad class of the public,” for example, the rules say it won’t count.
Ian Stedman, an assistant professor of Canadian public law and governance at York University, said the rules governing conflicts of interests for MPs are vague and allow lawmakers to decide for themselves what constitutes a conflict.
“The way that they’ve designed the rules is that … even if you do stand to benefit from it, it doesn’t preclude you from representing your constituents by voting,” Stedman said.
And because the code gives MPs a 60-day window to update their disclosure statements, the public can’t track the stock trades their lawmakers or their spouses are making in real time.
In the United States, there is a movement to ban all congressional stock trading. The issue became prominent after revelations some Republican and Democratic lawmakers had pocketed large profits by buying and selling stocks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, a group of U.S. senators introduced the Ending Trading and Holdings in Congressional Stocks Act, which would, among other changes, ban members of Congress from owning or trading securities like stocks. It has bipartisan support, but the bill is unlikely to see quick progress given the political division in Congress.
In Canada, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said he was in favour of continued transparency but isn’t ready yet to ban MPs from owning and trading stocks while in office.
“I wouldn’t be ready now to say that they should not [hold stocks],” Blanchet told The Narwhal and the Investigative Journalism Foundation.
“But it’s a good thing that the population knows that [information] when you make a decision when it comes to an election.”
The Narwhal and the Investigative Journalism Foundation asked questions to the offices of all 29 sitting MPs about how confident they were their comments on environmental policies and programs were not influenced by their or their spouses’ investments, as well as what steps MPs had taken to ensure their portfolio didn’t conflict with their parliamentary duties.
In addition to asking the offices of individual MPs, The Narwhal and the Investigative Journalism Foundation sent questions to the Prime Minister’s Office and to the offices of the Conservatives and the NDP to ask how confident they were that their MPs were not being influenced by oil and gas investments.
“We have nothing to add on this from our side,” Alison Murphy, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said in a one-line response to emailed questions.
Justice Minister Lametti’s communications director David Taylor said in a statement, “the minister has a high level of confidence that he was not influenced by his former spouse’s ownership of these stocks.”
A spokesperson for Public Services Minister Jaczek said, “The minister has always been in full compliance with all ethics laws and guidelines applicable to her position, including proactively disclosing the assets of her family members where necessary.”
“Minister Bennett has always been in full compliance with all ethics laws and guidelines applicable to her position, including proactively disclosing the assets of her family members where necessary,” said the minister’s spokesperson Maja Štaka.
Liberal MP Sorbara responded to initial queries but could not schedule an interview. National Revenue Minister Lebouthillier declined an interview. Fisheries Minister Murray and Jones, parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources and to the minister of northern affairs, did not respond to questions.
The office of McPherson, the NDP MP, said she was unavailable for an interview. NDP spokesperson Eric Demers said in a statement that all of the party’s MPs “strictly” follow disclosure rules and obligations set by the ethics commissioner.
“Like many Canadians, MPs make financial investments in stocks, assets and mutual funds,” Demers said. “Due to the nature of their job, people expect them to set a high standard of disclosure as public office holders. New Democrats take that responsibility very seriously and believe it’s important to be as transparent as possible.”
The Narwhal and the Investigative Journalism Foundation asked the oil and gas firms named in the ethics disclosures if they were aware of politicians or their spouses who had invested in their company, and if they thought there should be any rules around MPs who invest in the stock market.
“This type of governance is between ethics commissioners and public office holders,” Enbridge spokesperson Gina Sutherland said. Sutherland added that while the company was required to maintain a shareholder’s registry, “as shares are frequently held under the name of a corporation or intermediary, it is not possible to track the names of all individual shareholders.” Other companies did not return requests for comment.
Sebastian Skamski, a spokesperson for Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, said he would be unavailable for an interview, and the leader’s office did not answer questions. Chong declined an interview. Lantsman, Kelly, Lloyd, Lobb and Davidson did not respond to questions.
Reid declined to answer questions but his office pointed to a blog he wrote in February on how he balances his duties as an elected representative with his other role serving as the board chair of Giant Tiger, a chain of discount retail stores across Canada. His father, Gordon Reid, founded the company and Reid the MP took over as chair in 2020.
After serving as an MP for many years, he has been able to “find ways of reducing the amount of time it takes to complete the same task,” leaving more time for non-parliamentary work, he argued.
In Alberta, Calgary Signal Hill Conservative MP Ron Liepert questioned the relevance of this story when so many MPs also own shares in a variety of other firms. Liepert, a former minister of energy and minister of finance for the Alberta government, owns shares in Enbridge and Capital Power, which runs natural gas plants.
In addition to his oil and gas stocks, he owns shares in Royal Bank of Canada and TD Bank — two big Canadian banks on the top 10 list of global fossil fuel financiers, according to a Banking on Climate Chaos report, put together by the Rainforest Action Network. Liepert also owns shares in Brookfield Renewable.
“Why you would focus on oil and gas stocks is beyond comprehension,” Liepert said in emailed comments. “I also own bank stocks. I own shares in [Canadian Pacific Railway] and various telecoms. How about those?”
Liepert, who has announced he will not seek re-election, also declined to answer questions about whether he ever recused himself from any discussion or vote that would have had an impact on the companies whose stocks he holds, or if he ever spoke to the ethics commissioner about his portfolio.
“I don’t believe you are a constituent so I have no obligation to you,” he said. “No response to your questions will be forthcoming.”
None of the MPs contacted by The Narwhal and the Investigative Journalism Foundation directly answered questions about if and when they had consulted with the ethics commissioner’s office about their stocks or if they had recused themselves from decisions based on their portfolios.
The ethics commissioner’s office publishes quarterly statistical reports that include how many times the office gave advice to MPs. Spokesperson Jocelyne Brisebois said the statistics don’t break down what percentage of that advice was specifically related to stocks. The reports include the number of recusals made by public office holders but don’t name them.
It’s up to MPs to change their own ethics rules. Lawmakers review their own conflict of interest code about once every five years. The most recent review, in June 2022, made no recommendations that would ban MPs from owning stocks, although the committee did recommend a technical change to close an ambiguity over investments valued at exactly $10,000.
Stedman said a more automated system was needed to alert members of the financial interests they’ve declared while engaging in policy-making. He argued this could be done by parliamentary staff who examine daily agendas and events, and then email MPs with a warning of activities and debates that could present a conflict with their stock holdings.
Asked about bolstering preventative measures, Brisebois said the ethics commissioner’s office already has a mandate to “undertake educational activities” for MPs and the office takes “proactive steps” to provide direction and advice about ethics.
For others, educational activities aren’t going far enough to ensure the integrity of elected officials with vested interests in the finances of oil and gas companies.
Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, said politicians should be recusing themselves from participating in decisions when they can’t avoid their private interests potentially influencing their impartiality and objectivity.
“It’s dishonourable to participate when your judgment may be biased and you may be unaware of just how biased your judgment is,” Schafer said.
“The law needs to be changed [or] the law needs to be enforced, and members of parliament need to behave with integrity.”
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