Book adds to Liberal woes

Martin defends role of Option Canada - Sovereignists spent $25 million, he says

Élections 2006

Paul Martin needed this like a hole in the head.
This morning, the day of the English-language debates, two politically committed investigative writers will launch a book laying out what they have discovered about the activities of a Canadian unity group in Quebec during the 1995 referendum.
Normand Lester and Robin Philpot have written a book entitled Les secrets d'Option Canada that has already proven embarrassing for the Liberals.
Option Canada, a pro-federalist group, received $4.8 million during the 1995 referendum campaign but reports have surfaced the RCMP is looking into the possible misuse of part of the money.
Martin yesterday played down the matter and reiterated that information on the funding would be forthcoming.
"All this took place 10 years ago," said Martin, who went on to emphasize the Parti Québécois government spent $25 million in the same period to promote sovereignty.
Even before the book's publication, it has had considerable impact:
It prompted officials in the Department of Canadian Heritage to ask the RCMP to investigate what happened to the $4.8 million that it gave the unity group.
It has led the Quebec director of elections to look into whether funds were misused during the referendum campaign. It has pointed the finger at Claude Dauphin, a former Martin adviser, who was president of the organization.
It led Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew to call a news conference in Montreal on Saturday to say there was nothing inappropriate about a contract he had with the Council for Canadian Unity in 1995 when he was a private consultant.
And, on the days leading up to the debate, it has revived a decade-old controversy in Quebec as to whether the slim victory of the No side in the 1995 referendum was won fairly.
On Friday, Martin tried to turn the tables on the Bloc Québécois, arguing that former Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau had devoted state resources to promoting Quebec independence.
And Dauphin, who is now vice-chairman of the executive committee and responsible for public safety for the City of Montreal, told La Presse he played no role in managing the funds acquired by the unity group. There was nothing to make me think there were irregularities," he said.
Option Canada was incorporated in September 1995 by the Council for Canadian Unity, with the sole function of promoting Canada in the period leading up to the referendum - something the Council was not permitted to do because of its charitable status.
Option Canada received funding from the heritage department, and Sheila Copps who became minister in 1996, told the Toronto Star yesterday that there were some irregularities.
There was $300,000 unaccounted for," she said in an interview. "When the department went to Option Canada it was referred to the council, and when it went to the council it was referred to Option Canada."
She said that she contacted Dauphin and asked him to provide the paper.
"I said `You have to have it - there's government money involved. There has to be a paper trail,'" she said.
Copps said she told Dauphin that if she did not get an accounting of the unaccounted money, she would refer the matter to the Auditor-General.
"It went to the Auditor-General and I never heard anything more about it," she said.
The Liberal Party issued a statement on Saturday listing the PQ's spending to promote sovereignty, including $8.5 million for regional and national commissions on the future of Quebec.
"The PQ was spending $25 million," a Quebec Liberal strategist said yesterday. "Both sides were playing for keeps."
Lester is a veteran reporter who left Radio-Canada in 2001 when he was reprimanded for the first volume of his Livre noir series for bias and lack of objectivity. The books have been best-sellers in Quebec.
Philpot is the author of a number of books, most recently Le référendum volé, and has worked as an editor, translator and communications specialist.

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