OTTAWA – Citizenship and Immigration Canada isn’t the only federal department spending hundreds of thousands of dollars keeping a keen eye on the country’s ethnic media.
The Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy that supports the prime minister, spent $463,300 last January on a two-year contract with the same ethnic media monitoring company that Citizenship has paid almost $750,000 over the past three years.
The CIC contracts, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws, make clear that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ethnic outreach minister Jason Kenney consider ethnic media critical sources of intelligence.
“In fact, both the minister of immigration and the prime minister have been quoted as saying that ‘ethnic media sources are the new mainstream media’ and that ‘more people follow ethnic media than mainstream sources,’” states the backgrounder in a May 2011 contract document.
In addition to searching keywords and subjects of interest and providing summaries, says the contract, “verbatim transcripts, translation of transcripts, and audio-video clips are also required on an ‘as and when requested’ basis.”
Records in the government’s electronic tendering database show that since 2006, Privy Council has signed several contracts with firms engaged in ethnic media monitoring.
The first was worth $375,000 a year for a maximum of three years and asked for “a weekly list of the most covered issues in ethnic print and broadcast media sources as they relate to the federal government.”
A second, $435,750 contract was awarded in 2010 and included the provision that the winner must “demonstrate their ability to respond to requests by PCO during non-business hours.”
PCO spokesman Raymond Rivet said in an email that “cultural news outlets are an important source of news for many Canadians.
“We monitor cultural news media to assess the effectiveness of government of Canada communications,” Rivet told The Canadian Press.
The reports are shared across the government, he added.
“This approach provides value for money by eliminating the need for all departments to monitor cultural news media.”
The CIC contracts also state the information may be shared with “one or more federal departments.”
Ethnic voices “are finally being reckoned with,” said Madeline Ziniak of the Canadian Ethnic Media Association.
There may be “editorial and opinion that perhaps isn’t always expressed in traditional media,” Ziniak said. “If they’re paying attention to that, that’s good.
“If they’re using it towards political means — and no one’s naive enough to think not — then obviously that’s another issue altogether.”
Ziniak said she’d also like to know how much Ottawa is spending to monitor mainstream French and English media sources.
While the contracts for both Privy Council and Citizenship suggest only ethnic media outlets in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia are to be monitored, the net appears to have been cast far wider.
The reports for Citizenship and Immigration include coverage in the Spanish-language press in Mexico of Prince William and his new bride Kate’s appearance with Kenney at a citizenship ceremony in July 2011.
There is also coverage of marriage fraud issues from the Indian media.
The media monitoring firms are given a list of keywords to scour in ethnic media and the results often go beyond news items directly related to the federal government.
For example, reports from May 2011 detail apparent infighting among members of the Greek community in Montreal, while a July 2011 report includes a story on similar tensions in Toronto’s Ethiopian community.
Art exhibits, awards given to local citizens and fundraising dinners are also caught in the report.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s office says the monitoring is done at the discretion of the department.
Kenney is the Conservative government’s highly political and highly effective point man on wooing ethnic communities, often cited as a key pillar of the party’s electoral success.
His spokeswoman, Alexis Pavlich, credited paying attention to ethnic media as a strategy that helps to drive policy decisions.
“Ethnic media monitoring has increased significantly over the last few years as our government wants to hear the voices of immigrant communities, rather just those of the mainstream media,” Pavlich said in an email.
“This monitoring has helped us to address many issues that we would not have been aware of were it not for the important stories that are covered by ethnic media outlets.”
But it appears the department has the ability to make special inquiries of its own.
In a report for July 12, 2011, there’s a “requested item” on delays in processing visas for Mexican citizens.
In August 2010, “research for CIC” was conducted that canvassed a number of media outlets for letters to the editor from Kenney.
The report included a full transcript of Kenney’s letter to the Caribbean Camera to chide the paper for saying that former governor general Michaelle Jean’s term had been ended by Harper.
Indeed, the Haiti-born Jean seemed to be something of a departmental pre-occupation for Citizenship and Immigration.
A weekly media summary in May 2010, for instance, noted that “lobbying for the next Governor General is still active,” then listed positive and negative media reports on the issue.
There are also full transcriptions of a Chinese language account of public unrest over Harper’s prorogation of Parliament; Punjabi news stories featuring Liberals Ruby Dhalla and Michael Ignatieff; and a full translation of Chinese coverage of an Ignatieff event in Markham, Ont.
“We’re not saying they shouldn’t pay attention,” Jinny Sims, the NDP immigration critic, said of the government’s ethnic media monitoring.
“I certainly pay attention to what goes on in the media. What we’re saying is, $750,000? When you’re talking about taxpayer dollars that are being used for maybe political ends, then I think it’s an abuse of tax dollars.”
Liberal critic Kevin Lamoureux also jumped on reports that the monitoring continued during the 2011 election campaign.
“Media monitoring of Conservative election campaign events and candidates using departmental resources is a flagrant and shameful abuse of taxpayer dollars,” Lamoureux said in a release.
“Minister Kenney must immediately end this misuse of public funds and apologize to all Canadians.”