National Newswatch

OTTAWA — The head of Canada's federal housing agency wrote a one-word email in November to sum up the time it took to figure out just which newly shuffled cabinet minister was responsible for the agency, which oversees billions in affordable housing spending and mortgage underwriting.

"Madness."

The whirlwind journey is laid out in emails obtained by The Canadian Press under the federal Access to Information Act. Parts of the documents have been blacked out, citing privacy and internal government deliberations.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. manages the national housing strategy, which totals some $40 billion in federal and provincial spending, and billions more to help first-time home buyers and others applying for mortgages.

Before the 2019 fall federal election, things were clear: CMHC reported to then social development minister Jean-Yves Duclos, who oversaw the housing strategy and the government's anti-poverty measures, including homelessness.

After the election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau moved pieces around his cabinet, including Duclos, an economics professor who studied many of the issues Employment and Social Development Canada and CMHC handled.

Duclos became president of the Treasury Board. His old file was split between Ahmed Hussen, who took over child benefits and homelessness programs, and Carla Qualtrough, who handled the massive employment insurance file, among other employment and training programs.

The department, like all others after new cabinet ministers are sworn in, quickly prepared briefing documents. Normally, that would be done with some foresight ahead of time, but not always, said Kathy Brock, a policy studies professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. 

"In some cases, the public service is reacting on the turn of a dime, and other times, no, they have a better sense of where the government is going and what it is going to do," said Brock, who researches how the public service operates.

In either case, change can cause resistance or questioning within the public service, she said.

On the evening of Nov. 20, 2019, hours after the new cabinet was sworn in, CMHC reached out to arrange a briefing for Qualtrough, understanding the agency would report to her and not Hussen. The agency's president, Evan Siddall, was going to be in Qualtrough's Vancouver-area riding for a board meeting.

The answer an hour later from the office of the top public servant at ESDC: "We are still working to sort out where CMHC has landed," the email reads, noting "it is not obvious."

CMHC, the email said, would report to Hussen.

Not so, according to the Privy Council Office, the central bureaucracy that supports the prime minister and cabinet. It was Qualtrough.

"Fyi, I gather people aren't sure about where we go," Siddall wrote shortly thereafter to the ESDC's deputy minister, Graham Flack.

Things weren't any clearer the next morning, before briefing books for the new ministers were complete.

One senior official thought CMHC landed with Hussen because they couldn't "see homelessness moving."

No, Flack replied. The Privy Council Office "confirmed it is Minister Q. Flows from role as Min of ESDC," he wrote, meaning the minister responsible for the department.

"I'd prefer separating homelessness and CMHC as it makes more sense in terms of balancing responsibilities," the reply goes on to say. "I just haven't had enough interaction to know how linked the two files are."

A few more emails flew around, and the idea of separating housing and homelessness efforts between two ministers was considered "weird."

"Dividing CMHC and homelessness between 2 ministers is not ideal — similar to the world we were previously in on EI (employment insurance)," reads an early morning email on Nov. 21 to the department's top brass.

"Not fatal if it happens and people will make it work, but definitely will make things more difficult and needlessly complicated."

The Liberals unveiled their 10-year, $40-billion national housing strategy in late 2017 in partnership with provinces and territories. They've since boasted the total cost is over $55 billion, counting funding to help offset mortgage costs for first-time home buyers.

The strategy — known inside government by the acronym NHS — targets the building and updating of affordable housing and has obvious overlaps with a separate strategy to combat homelessness and reduce poverty levels.

"It would also be strange (and perhaps awkward) to have 2 different Ministers responsible for different elements of the NHS and yet accountable for shared outcomes," reads another email to Flack as the morning rolled on.

And, finally, an answer.

CMHC got a call from someone involved in the transition team to say "it is Hussen and NOT Qualtrough," an email to Siddall reads, and adds, "that was always their intention." Similar calls went to people at ESDC, who learned Hussen was destined to be responsible for the department.

Siddall flipped the message to Flack.

"Madness," Siddall wrote.

"I'm calling to give you the back story," Flack replied.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2020.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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