By Jorge Barrera and Kenneth Jackson
APTN National News
OTTAWA–Federal bureaucrats once directed Bruce Carson, a former advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper now under an RCMP investigation, to the $5 million water pilot project for First Nations unveiled this week by Ottawa and Ontario.
The Ottawa-based water filtration company Carson promoted, however, would likely not qualify for the pilot project announced Tuesday because it sold a different type of system than what was outlined in guidelines announced by the federal Aboriginal Affairs department.
The department also changed the way bids will be considered for the pilot project from what was described to Carson in an email written by a department official last year.
The pilot project aims to test technologies and try new ways to improve water quality on four selected Ontario communities. Alderville First Nation, Lac Seul First Nation, Munsee-Delaware First Nation and Zhiibaahaasing First Nation were selected to participate.
Despite repeated requests by APTN National News to discuss the apparent change in the program, Aboriginal Affairs refused to discuss the announcement and the pilot project’s guidelines.
According to information that was released by the department, the pilot project will favour bids from water filtration firms providing “point of entry” water systems that treat all water entering homes and are installed in a heated enclosure outside the building.
Carson was lobbying Aboriginal Affairs officials on behalf of H2O Global Group and H2O Pros, which only sold point-of-use water filtration systems that treat water after it enters the house and before it reaches the tap.
In discussions with the department, Carson referred to H2O’s product as “point-of-entry” filtration systems.
The Prime Minister’s Office asked the RCMP, the Lobbying Commissioner and the Ethics Commissioner last March to investigate Carson after an APTN National News investigation into Carson’s ties to the water company and his lobbying efforts at the department. The company had a financial arrangement with Carson’s fiancée at the time, Michele McPherson, who was a former Ottawa escort.
The systems sold by the company, which has since gone out of business, were eligible for the pilot project and the department was considering inviting H2O Pros to bid on the pilot project, according to a Feb. 17, 2011, email from a department official to Carson.
“H2O Pros may be on the list of potential vendors invited to bid on this pilot-project,” wrote Lysian Bolduc, a senior infrastructure engineer for the department.
Carson and H2O Pros were at the time trying to convince the Mohawk community of Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ont., apply for department funding to install between 50 and 100 water filtration systems in the community.
On Wednesday, March 16, 2011, Carson forwarded Bolduc’s email to a Tyendinaga band official with the note, “fyi-bc.”
About two hours later, Tyendinaga Chief Donald Maracle phoned Patrick Ku, manager of technical services in the federal department’s Toronto branch asking him if H2O Pro was the “supplier of choice” for the department.
“I received a call from Chief Maracle…10 minutes ago. He asked if H2O Pro is (the) supplier of choice,” said a March 16, 2011 email from Ku to three other officials that was obtained under the Access to Information Act. “I explained to him that (the department) does not endorse H2O Pro as the company to install their equipment in Tyendinaga.”
The department has also changed the process for selecting firms to take part in the project. According to Bolduc’s email to Carson, which was written following a meeting between the former political PMO aide and department officials, a “pilot-project team” of federal and Ontario officials would pick the firms from a list compiled after a tendering process.
“The pilot-project team is currently in the process of preparing a list of potential technologies and vendors,” wrote Bolduc. “Final technologies/vendors selected for evaluation through pilot-testing would be chosen by the project team through a tendering process that will consider both technical merit and anticipated life-cycle costs.”
A few months after the email and following the eruption of the Carson scandal, which preceded the May 2 election, Aboriginal Affairs issued a press release announcing Ottawa and Ontario were launching three-year pilot project. But the July 6, 2011, press release stated that it would be up to the selected First Nations communities to pick and choose the companies it wanted to work with.
“The First Nation communities selected for participation in this pilot project will be responsible for commissioning appropriate design and technology solutions for their communities through a request for proposals process,” said the release at the time.
In Tuesday’s announcement, however, the selection process changed. Now, a committee with representatives from the selected First Nations, the federal Aboriginal affairs department and Ontario’s ministry of environment would select the winning bids.
“Selecting appropriate design and technology solutions for these communities through a request for proposals (RFP) process conducted collaboratively with representatives from the First Nation communities, Ministry of Environment of Ontario and AANDC,” said the release.
Joe Kim, spokesperson for Ontario’s environment ministry, said “no solutions have been excluded from consideration.”
Kim confirmed the initial plan was to select companies from a list.
“It was later decided that an open, transparent bidding process would be better,” he said.
Kim said the First Nations would still have final say on who gets the winning bids, but Ontario and Ottawa officials would assist them with the technical review of the proposals.
The pilot-project will also accept bids for improving existing infrastructure, new water trucks and pre-fabricated water treatment plants, along with “other approaches deemed appropriate,” according to the department’s statement.
Kim said Ottawa had the lead on the file and that the province was primarily providing technical assistance.