Oshawa MP Colin Carrie, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and former Harbour Commission Chair Gary Valcour were on hand to announce a Canada Port Authority recently.
By Geoff Zochodne/The Oshawa Express
New powers, present problems and old faces are what’s driving the conflict of interest questions at the new Oshawa Port Authority.
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently announced Oshawa’s Harbour Commission, the last such organization in Canada, would be transitioning to a Canada Port Authority.
“You have to recognize, quite frankly, that a port authority is much more powerful and more oriented to the whole country than a harbour commission,” states Minister Flaherty, present in the place of the transport minister. “The harbour commission is an old-fashioned, 1960s idea in Canada. Oshawa's in the big leagues today.”
Some who heard the edict were curious: What happens now?
The implications had politicians howling in Ottawa. MP Olivia Chow railed against the federal government for allowing Minister Flaherty’s Electoral District Association president and Harbour Commission Chair Gary Valcour for being allowed to continue in an interim role at the port authority. She asked the federal government during Monday’s Question Period: “Did the Conservatives create another patronage board just to reward the minister's friend, or did they do it so they could impose the (ethanol) refinery against the wishes of the people of Oshawa, or are they doing both?”
Pierre Poilievre, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Transport shot back that all appointments by the government are based on merit, and that, “The transition team in place was already at the helm of the port commission before the announcement last week. The partners of course are going to collaborate to put in place a successful new port authority.”
Back in Oshawa, accompanying Minister Flaherty for last Friday’s announcement were Oshawa MP Colin Carrie and Valcour. Also in attendance was Oshawa’s City council, sitting silently in the front row.
It is no secret that council has been waging a war against an ethanol plant at Oshawa’s harbour. There was no confirmation made by any of the speakers if the facility is a “fait accompli,” as Minister Flaherty called the new port authority.
Another concern raised was whether or not there is a conflict of interest in having Valcour serve as the interim chair of the port authority.
Valcour is, or was, the president of the Whitby-Oshawa Conservative EDA, which is Minister Flaherty’s turf. His influence at the harbour, his ties to the EDA, the increased power of the Oshawa Port Authority and the continuing saga of the still-sought-after ethanol plant has people asking questions. Especially since the ethanol plant is being proposed by FarmTech, with Tim O’Connor, who served with Valcour on the same Whitby-Oshawa EDA, as a director.
The finance minister sounded pleased with the port’s new status, and the economic development it could bring.
“Our government recognizes the significant role the Port of Oshawa plays in the local economy,” says Minister Flaherty in a release. “The creation of a Port Authority in Oshawa provides the certainty for businesses to plan and invest in our port, which will create jobs and long-term economic growth. This is a great day for the future of Oshawa and Durham Region.”
Oshawa’s MP concurred with the minister’s assessment.
“Oshawa is one of the few cities that can boast an airport, rail, 400-series highways, an open water port and is a blossoming transportation hub,” says MP Carrie. “And, as a result, Oshawa is becoming one of the fastest growing cities in Canada.”
It is the government’s job to facilitate growth through infrastructure, notes Minister Flaherty. Oshawa’s new status will allow for it to accept new business from at home and abroad, he explains.
The letters patent for the Oshawa Port Authority has yet to be made public; it should appear in the Canada Gazette February 18, says Minister Flaherty. But that document outlines the power a port authority can have in managing its affairs and property according to the Canada Marine Act. Supplemental letters patent can amend the original document and allow for the sale or purchase of property.
The letters patent defines how much money a port authority can borrow, how much it can charge for usage and how it operates as a business overall. Part of the Marine Act also states the transport minister can issue supplementary letters patent of their own after notifying the board of directors.
On the day the letters patent is issued, any harbour commission in place transforms and becomes a port authority. The Marine Act says this means “an existing cause of action, proceeding or claim by or against the harbour commission or a liability or other obligation of the harbour commission is unaffected except that any judgment or order is to be satisfied first by the port authority.”
In addition, the letters patent defines the governance of the port authority. Oshawa’s could have between seven and 11 directors. One is nominated by the minister of transportation, one is appointed by the municipalities, one is appointed by the province and the rest are “nominated by the Minister in consultation with the users selected by the Minister or the classes of users mentioned in the letters patent.”
With the transition of the harbour commission to a port authority, the directors of the commission stay on for 90 days or until they are replaced. The directors are “responsible for the management of the activities of a port authority.”
Governance of the port authority was a matter Minister Flaherty was asked about during the announcement.
Gary Valcour was the chair of the Oshawa Harbour Commission, and presently serves in that same capacity for the new port authority, as per the Marine Act. With no new board in place yet he has a high degree of responsibility for the port.
Furthermore, Valcour served as the president of the Whitby-Oshawa Conservative EDA. One person who remains on the EDA board is Tim O’Connor, a director at FarmTech.
The EDA is responsible for raising money for its candidate. During the 2011 federal election the Whitby-Oshawa EDA transferred over $30,000 to Minister Flaherty’s campaign, according to Elections Canada.
Valcour will be stepping down as president of the Whitby-Oshawa EDA, states the finance minister.
“Gary Valcour has served honourably as the chair of the harbour commission. We will see what the composition is of the new board,” says Minister Flaherty. “He and I have discussed the fact that we're moving to a Canada Port Authority and he will not be continuing as the president of my electoral district association.”
Valcour does not see a problem with the latest developments.
“There's no conflict of interest as long as you're doing your due diligence and conducting your business in an appropriate way,” says Valcour. “I believe I have, and I believe our commission (has) and I believe certainly going forward the new board will.”
“I've been elected in this community since 1995...I know everyone in this room quite well,” remarks Minister Flaherty.
It will be up to the new board to appoint a president of the port authority, and Minister Flaherty confirmed it will be under the watch of the old harbour commission board until the new directors are brought in, be that 90 days or sooner from the date on the letters patent.
Valcour notes that while he does have the power to make decisions for the new port authority, the odds of him ruling on something like the ethanol plant are “highly unlikely.”
“My inclination and my intention would be let's hold off until we have this other group,” he clarifies. “Let's be practical about this too. Just because you wait for a larger group or a different group...doesn't change the outcome necessarily. It certainly doesn't change the processes, obligations and duties.”
When asked if the letters patent will see the port authority lease, sell or license an ethanol plant on the harbour property, MP Carrie fielded the question.
“Any business opportunities that are brought forth to the port authority, they will be evaluated on their merit,” he explains. “And there are public processes and local processes in effect to manage that.”
There has been little news from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada on the status of FarmTech’s application for federal funding.
The company registered for the ecoAgriculture Biofuels Capital Initiative on May 25, 2007. It registered with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Registry September 5, 2008. The public comment period for the environmental assessment ended last summer.
“The application for funding under the ecoABC initiative is still active,” confirms spokesperson Patrick Girard. “In addition to the environmental assessment which is still ongoing, there are other eligibility requirements that must be met by the company before Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada can give further consideration to the application.”
The O’Connor’s, who lead the ethanol plant project, have ties to Minister Flaherty, his EDA and the federal government.
Tim O’Connor is a board member of the Whitby-Oshawa EDA with Valcour and made a $1,000 donation to Minister Flaherty’s re-election campaign in 2008. Daniel O’Connor, his brother and leader of the FarmTech project, made an identical contribution. Valcour made a $525 donation to the Conservative Party of Canada the same year.
Tim O’Connor was appointed to the board of directors for one of Agriculture Canada’s portfolio partners, the Farm Products Council of Canada (FPCC), in 2011.
At the time, Claude Janelle, the executive director of the FPCC, acknowledged the long and accredited history O’Connor has in the poultry business and added “this is a government appointment. The FPCC is not involved in the appointment process.”
“I'm delighted for my brother. In this role he will be able to put his skills and vast agricultural experience to work for the public,” said Dan O’Connor previously. “Members of my family have long served, for generations, as agricultural leaders, and this is just another way we, and he, can show commitment to agriculture in Durham Region.”
Tim O’Connor served as campaign manager for Whitby-Oshawa MPP Christine Elliott’s re-election campaign in 2011 as well. MPP Elliott is married to Minister Flaherty.
Tim and Dan’s brother Kelly O’Connor was the Whitby member of the Durham Agricultural Advisory Committee (DAAC) from 2006 to 2010. During his term the DAAC recommended Regional council “encourage” the City of Oshawa to rezone its harbour lands for an ethanol plant; at a meeting Kelly was not present, but at which a handout from his brother Dan was circulated. The recommendation based off the handout reached the Regional Planning Committee but was halted after the Region decided to let Oshawa work out its affairs before moving forward.
Kelly and Tim O’Connor also made $250 donations to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario’s Whitby-Oshawa Constituency Association in 2007.
Calls to FarmTech and Tim O’Connor were not returned as of The Oshawa Express’ deadline.
Brian Brasier, the executive director of Friends of Second Marsh, was not invited to Friday’s announcement. However his fears remain unchanged.
“Our biggest…and most immediate concern would be if the port authority as part of the land use plans approved an ethanol refinery on the Giffords’ farm lands. We’re really concerned about the negative environmental impact on Second Marsh,” says Brasier, who adds his group has not been really been involved in the process at the harbour. “It’s been the pattern with Oshawa harbour that the federal government chooses a process that minimizes public participation and public awareness.”
With all of this taken into consideration, Oshawa Mayor John Henry, who was a vocal opponent to any ethanol plant at Oshawa Harbour, still does not know for certain what the announcement entails.
“I have some concerns. I haven’t seen the letters patent so I don’t know what’s in the actual document,” says Mayor Henry. “It’s my hope that the issue of ethanol is done. That the port understands we’ve worked very hard, ran a very public campaign and have support right across the region. The port’s going to have to be conscious of the fact we want to have a mixed-use port and part of that eventually is returning to having a marina at the harbour.”
Bruce McArthur is the City of Oshawa’s representative on the Harbour Commission and will continue to serve in that capacity during the transition to a port authority. He also hopes to have City council put his name forward for permanent membership on the port’s new board of directors.
“The port authority is structured as an independent business within crown lands,” he explains. “Now that we are moving to a CPA, our role (the harbour commission), in my view, is that of a caretaker. It appears to me, as a member…we do not have a plan of action that is suitable.”
McArthur says that tinkering with the quality of life for residents by the harbour by installing an ethanol plant is not right as, “they were there first.”
“We (the harbour commission) have never…had a comprehensive discussion on expanding our horizons for industrial promotions,” continues McArthur. “They’ve waited for years for something to happen on that (the ethanol plant) file. I think it’s time for a new beginning and to reach out and bury the hatchet.”