Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Liberal style lobbying 101: "Justin! Justin! Justin! ... Phil! Phil! Phil!"

Pipeline consultant had prime spot at Liberal victory rally

Christopher Curtis
Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Phil Fontain, left, watches Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and wife Sophie Gregoire arrive to Liberal election headquarters in Montreal on Monday, October 2o, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A paid consultant for the Energy East pipeline stood just a few feet away from Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau Monday night as he made his victory speech in Montreal.

For at least three years, Phil Fontaine has acted as the principal liaison between TransCanada — the company behind the proposed $12-billion pipeline project — and about 150 First Nations communities across Canada.

During the same period, Fontaine has served on the board of directors of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. The non-profit organization awards scholarships to students working on human-rights projects. Justin Trudeau does not sit on the board of the foundation named after his late father, but his brother, Alexandre, is a board member.

Prior to Fontaine’s consulting career, he was elected to three terms as the Assembly of First Nations’ national chief, retiring in 2009 as one of the country’s most respected indigenous leaders. A few months later, he incorporated Ishkonigan Consulting and Mediation Services, which later secured contracts from TransCanada to mediate between the energy company and First Nations over the controversial pipeline project.

Specifically, Fontaine’s firm has helped broker dozens of “participant funding agreements” between aboriginal communities and TransCanada, deals that combined are worth millions of dollars. The agreements have paid for pipeline-impact studies on such traditional practices as hunting and fishing, among other things.

TransCanada has said that Ishkonigan’s work is crucial in gaining approval of the project in First Nations, many of whom oppose the pipeline. Energy East would link Alberta’s oilsands to terminals in Quebec and New Brunswick, carrying upwards of 1 million barrels of crude a day.

Late Monday night, Fontaine was in the front row of a packed ballroom at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, standing behind Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire, as Trudeau vowed during his speech to respect Canada’s treaty obligations to its indigenous peoples. Fontaine was wearing a red Liberal lanyard around his neck.

Liberal sources said there is no formal relationship between Fontaine and the party, and added they don’t know who invited him to Trudeau’s election-night rally. As of Monday night, the party was unable to provide a statement on the matter.

The Montreal Gazette left several messages for Fontaine at his company office Tuesday, but he could not be reached for comment.

Although a TransCanada spokesperson confirmed Fontaine’s existing business relationship with the company, he said he didn’t know about Fontaine’s presence at Monday night’s Liberal event.

“We work with Ishkonigan (Fontaine’s company), it’s something that’s well known,” said Jonathan Abecassis, a spokesperson for TransCanada. “We work with them for indigenous and aboriginal relations. As to what Phil Fontaine was doing at the Justin Trudeau rally, I would invite you to contact Ishkonigan directly simply because that’s not something that I can really speak to.”

Two sources with direct knowledge of Fontaine’s business dealings say he was attending the rally as a Liberal supporter but they do not believe he has any formal or informal relationship with the party.

Throughout the election campaign, Trudeau refused to outright support the project when questioned repeatedly by journalists. Last week he accepted the resignation of his campaign co-chair, Dan Gagnier, because of Gagnier’s ties to TransCanada.

Gagnier stepped down after news reports revealed that he sent a detailed email during the campaign to five TransCanada officials, explaining how they could lobby an eventual Liberal government to have their Energy East pipeline approved.

“For us, especially after seeing the resignation of the (Liberal) campaign co-chair … (Fontaine’s presence at the rally) is something that we need to be concerned about,” said Clayton-Thomas Mueller, the ‘Stop it at the Source’ campaigner for 350.org, a global environmentalist group.

In the weeks leading up to Monday’s vote, Fontaine endorsed Liberal candidate Karley Scott — a Métis lawyer who lost her bid for a seat in British Columbia.

Fontaine is not registered on the list of active federal lobbyists and he does not lobby Ottawa on behalf of TransCanada. Documents from the National Energy Board show that Fontaine’s firm is the principal mediator between the pipeline company and Canada’s aboriginal band councils — which fall under federal jurisdiction.

As national chief of the AFN, Fontaine helped secure a significant legal and moral victory for the survivors of Canada’s residential school system. Through a tough round of negotiations with the federal government, Fontaine and his team signed the Indian Residential Schools Agreement, which saw the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a process of financial reparations paid to thousands of survivors.

The negotiations yielded a historic moment in Canadian Parliamentary history: in 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to the victims of residential schools on behalf of the Canadian government.

ccurtis@montrealgazette.com

twitter.com/titocurtis

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