This story is part of The Big Spend, a CBC News investigation examining the unprecedented $240 billion the federal government handed out during the first eight months of the pandemic.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a warning Tuesday to Canadian companies that have tapped into the government’s wage subsidy program: the money is to be used to pay workers, not to pay for dividends or executive bonuses.
“I want to emphasize … for any companies that may be listening, that the wage subsidy must be used to pay workers,” Freeland told members of the House of Commons finance committee Tuesday. “That is very, very clear and we expect companies to comply with that.”
Freeland’s comment came after New Democratic Party Finance Critic Peter Julian questioned her about news reports by CBC News and the Financial Post, outlining the actions of some companies that received COVID-19 aid from the federal government.
“Canadians are really struggling. A lot of them are struggling to keep a roof over their head and a lot of them are just trying to keep their small businesses going,” said Julian. “So it’s very disturbing to find out from journalists who have been investigating some of the distribution of COVID relief that dozens of large Canadian companies have been using COVID funds to issue dividends, engage in stock buy backs and even given executive bonuses.”
“How many companies have engaged in these practices and what is the total amount that they have received?”
Julian’s question comes as an investigation by CBC News, The Big Spend, has revealed that the Trudeau government hasn’t been entirely transparent about where COVID-19 aid worth billions of dollars has gone.
While the government has made available high-level aggregate spending statistics, or estimates of the net fiscal impact, for the more than 100 programs it has launched since the pandemic began, only a few departments have released details about which individuals, groups or companies have received government money.
The end result is that the government has refused to reveal which groups and businesses are benefiting from some of its highest-spending programs.
Among the programs where the recipients are shrouded in mystery are those who received money under the wage subsidy program and most of the business loan programs.
While the government has been tight lipped, CBC News has identified more than 400 companies that have revealed in their corporate filings that they received government aid.
Among the revelations by CBC News has been that the CEO of an Indigenous tourism group charged with distributing federal government COVID-19 funding to Indigenous tourism businesses received a $25,000 bonus.
On Monday, the Financial Post reported that at least 68 publicly traded companies paid millions in dividends while receiving federal wage subsidies.
Wednesday, CBC News revealed that two Ontario long-term care homes that received millions in federal government funding also paid out millions to shareholders in dividends.
On Tuesday, Freeland found herself in the hot seat as CBC’s Big Spend stories fuelled opposition questions about just how much the government should be telling Canadians about which companies got the money.
“Is the CBC right to say that her government won’t release the numbers and the recipients of the COVID spending data,” asked Conservative Finance Critic Pierre Poilievre. “Yes or no.”
Freeland, however, repeatedly avoided committing to releasing the information.
“Our government absolutely understands and values the importance of transparency and we seek to release all the information that we can. I think people also understand that a tremendous job is being done by the CRA (Canada Revenue Agency) supporting Canadians and Canadian businesses.”
Julian accused the government of stonewalling. “It is important, transparency and disclosure,” he said.
“She has been asked repeatedly and she has refused to say that this information will be given to the Canadian public and I think that is unfortunate.”
While she won’t reveal which companies have already received cash, Freeland provided a glimpse of still more COVID-19 aid programs to come.
Freeland said the government is working on a program for Canada’s aerospace sector, saying it’s important in terms of jobs and exports.
“We need to have a growth plan and aerospace is absolutely part of this revitalization plan.”