A member of a council created by the federal government to provide procurement advice during the COVID-19 pandemic stepped down late Wednesday evening over her ties to a company that landed a contract with Indigenous Services Canada to provide temporary medical facilities to a northern Manitoba First Nation.
Cathy Bennett, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister in Newfoundland and Labrador, resigned from her position on the 17-member COVID-19 Supply Council after NDP MP Niki Ashton raised questions over her position as board chair of Dynamic Air Shelters.
The company announced this month it landed a contract with Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) to provide Mathias Colomb Cree Nation with nine temporary medical shelters in a process questioned by the First Nation.
“This company was recently awarded a contract with the government of Canada to provide mobile health units where additional healthcare capacity is required as part of the COVID-19 response,” said Public Services and Procurement Canada Minister Anita Anand’s office in an emailed statement.
“With this in mind, and out of an abundance of caution, Ms. Bennett has stepped down from the Council.”
The COVID-19 Supply council was created by Ottawa to provide “advice on the procurement of critical goods and services required as part of Canada’s COVID-19 response and recovery,” according to the Public Services and Procurement Canada website.
Bennett told CBC News earlier on Wednesday that she had no previous knowledge of the contract’s awarding and played no role in the decision.
“I had no involvement,” said Bennett, in the emailed statement.
“I’m an independent director with Dynamic… didn’t know they had the work until it was announced.”
Dynamic Air Shelters is headquartered in Calgary with a production facility in Grand Bank, N.L., and its sales and marketing based out of Houston, Tex., according to its website.
Company CEO David Quick said earlier this month that the company landed a contract to design, manufacture, deliver and the temporary medical shelters in Mathias Colomb Cree Nation by late May. The contract was for a medical unit for screening and triage, four isolation units and four accommodation units.
Quick said Dynamic partnered on the bid with Vancouver-based First Pac west and Dymond Group in Ottawa.
Quick responded to a request for comment Wednesday by deferring to several federal officials, who were cc’d in his reply.
‘Optics’ not good, says NDP MP
The announcement caught the First Nation by surprise, and they questioned why the department was choosing to pay an outside company for the facilities instead of funding the community’s own proposal to retrofit its youth centre.
Ashton, who represents the Churchill-Keewatinook Aski riding, said the affair raises questions on how someone could sit on a COVID-19 government advisory council on procurement while part of the board of a company seeking to do business with the government.
“We haven’t got any real answers on how this really happened,” said Ashton.
“Just on an optics front, this isn’t good. Here you have someone on a procurement council that is a supplier, how is that possible?”
Ashton wrote Anand asking her to explain how the Dynamic Air Shelters contract was awarded and if other companies linked to advisory council members have received COVID-19 related contracts from the federal government.
“This raises serious questions about why an unrequested order was shipped to a remote First Nation from a company with close ties to the supply council charged with advising you on emergency procurement options,” wrote Ashton in the May 12 letter.
“What steps are you taking as a department to ensure that procurement contracts are being awarded fairly, in accordance with need and without regard to political connections? What processes are in place to avoid conflicts of interest?”
Anand’s office said in the statement the COVID-19 Supply Council has no role in the federal procurement process, its members sign non-disclosure agreements and they are required to disclose any possible conflicts of interests.
“These requirements are in place to ensure the transparency of the Council’s function in providing the government with advice,” said the emailed statement.
PSPC has said previously that a “National Security Exception” covers the request for proposals, which was not made public.
Shelters still expected
Mathias Colomb Cree Nation Coun. Ralph Caribou said the band leadership is not looking to “start a fight with anyone” and is focused on protecting the community.
“We are very concerned and we have been since the outbreak,” said Caribou. “Our concern is to be as prepared as we possibly can considering our remoteness.”
Caribou said the community still expects the temporary shelters from the company to arrive by May 22, but they’ve received no details on site selection, where it’s going to be unloaded and what sort of water and wastewater services it needs.
He said the community is pushing ahead with plans to retrofit the youth centre for COVID-19 medical needs and has submitted the paperwork to ISC, which has said it has committed $353,000 to support the work.
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