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Harper's communications unit bigfoots Parks Canada news conference

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OTTAWA - You might say Parks Canada got mauled by Bigfoot.

Internal documents show the prime minister's department micro-managed a media event staged by Parks Canada, trying to erase the venerable agency from a public announcement while promoting the Harper government.

The incident is a case study in communications control from the centre, a signal feature of the governing Conservatives since they first came to power in 2006.

The event was an Oct. 17, 2011, news conference in Halifax to announce an agreement to transform Sable Island, a fabled sand crescent 290 kilometres off Nova Scotia, into a national park reserve.

The deal had been meticulously negotiated by Parks Canada with the Nova Scotia government over the course of a year, and proud officials wanted a splashy announcement as a way to celebrate Parks Canada's 100th birthday in 2011.

A media event at the Halifax Citadel, the old military fort overlooking the port city, was planned months in advance for a Monday morning, with Environment Minister Peter Kent and Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter joining Parks Canada officials for speeches and a signing ceremony.

Alas for Parks Canada, the carefully wrought plan started to unravel days before the event when a vetting team at the Privy Council Office began to pick apart the agenda, the news release and two background documents, demanding changes. The office is the central organ of the federal government, under the control of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Documents released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show the close scrutiny by PCO caused headaches at Parks Canada, which was facing a Monday morning announcement with no green light from the centre as late as noon Sunday.

"We still do not have PCO approved communications products for Sable," Mikele Cloer, a Parks Canada official in Ottawa, emailed colleagues late Friday afternoon.

"Could you please be on stand-by all weekend just in case we need you to look at/validate/approve/reject/cry over PCO's changes please?"

With still no resolution by Sunday, Cloer again wrote: "Everybody and his dog is checking these products."

When the Privy Council Office finally responded, officials demanded a raft of changes, many of them designed to quash Parks Canada's identity at the event.

A so-called "backgrounder" for handout to news media, for example, erased the agency's name altogether.

"I note the only change was that Parks Canada was 'disappeared,'" an agency official noted. "I have never seen our name completely eliminated in this manner before."

The stage backdrops for the news conference in Halifax were to have included a Parks Canada banner celebrating the agency's centennial in 2011. PCO told officials to get rid of it.

"No Parks Canada banner — the brown and yellow is ugly. Please stop using this," an unidentified official demanded in a note.

The planned agenda had an official delegation that included Kent, Dexter, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, a Nova Scotia MLA and three Parks Canada officials, including CEO Alan Latourelle and another acting as master of ceremonies.

A PCO note said to purge all three Parks Canada officials from the dais, and to find a politician to be the MC.

The original news release for the event had two paragraphs celebrating Parks Canada's centennial and noting a recent award won by the agency from the World Wildlife Fund. All of this was purged from the final version, with no mention of Parks Canada except a reference to Kent as the minister responsible for the agency.

Harper's central communications unit also demanded unspecified changes to Kent's prepared speech, but the minister did not accept them.

In the end, Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle had to sit the in audience, not on the stage as first envisioned, though a Parks Canada official — Theresa Bunbury — did take on the master-of-ceremonies duties.

The "ugly" Parks Canada banner remained as a stage backdrop, despite PCO's objections.

The written materials handed out at the event and posted on the web, however, remained purged of substantive references to Parks Canada, including any mention of its centennial.

Parks Canada's initial news release for the event had quoted Peter MacKay, the minister responsible for Nova Scotia, as saying "Fifty years of conservation efforts culminate today with the signing of this agreement ..."

The vetted version, however, moved the quote higher, and changed it to read: "Fifty years of conservation efforts culminate today with the Harper Government's signing of this agreement ..."

The event was much changed from the agency's original communications plan, drawn up in July 2011, which saw the Sable Island announcement as a key opportunity for Parks Canada to make a "good first impression through well-thought out strategies that communicate who we are ... what we do ... how we work, and what the benefits are for Canadians."

Asked about the vetting process for the Sable Island announcement, a Parks Canada media-relations official said there was nothing unusual.

"Communications products are in constant evolution from its creation to its dissemination to the public," Genevieve Patenaude said in an email. "Throughout its development process, some sections may be added while others can be removed. This is common practice."

"Parks Canada's usual internal process for major events includes collaboration with the Privy Council Office for the development of communication products."

A spokesman for Privy Council Office said the office "supports departments in communicating the government's activities and policies to Canadians."

"Part of PCO's role is co-ordination in order to provide coherent and effective communications," Raymond Rivet said in an email.

"For joint federal-provincial events, the identity of the Government of Canada and the participating province is used."

The Canadian Press requested the access-to-information documents in October 2011, but the agency violated legislated deadlines, delivering 915 pages only last week in response to a complaint to the information commissioner of Canada.

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