Ag minister’s chief of staff appointment raises questions

After months of going without a chief of staff and instead relying on staff borrowed from Agriculture Canada, agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay finally hired someone for the highest ranking job in his office in late December.

His choice was egg heiress Mary Jane McFall, whose extended family, led by sister Margaret, runs Burnbrae Farms. She officially started Jan. 4.

Burnbrae Farms is one of the largest egg production and processing businesses in the country. The current operation is home to farms in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia with a major operation in Lyn, Ont., about an hour and a half from Ottawa.

McFall is no stranger to the agriculture industry. She is a former member of Egg Farmers of Ontario’s board of directors and worked as Burnbrae’s legal counsel in the 1990s before returning to private practice in 2000.

McFall ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals in the 2015 federal election in the Leeds-Grenville Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes riding, where she lost to Conservative incumbent Gord Brown.

However, it’s her close connection to one of the largest egg operations in Canada that is raising conflict of interest questions from several folks in Ottawa’s inner circle.

Word of her initial appointment didn’t appear to trigger initial reaction from opposition parties or the agriculture industry, but in recent weeks concerns about her ability to build a firewall between the minster’s office and her family’s farm have grown.

In a Financial Post piece published Jan. 19, Carleton business professor Ian Lee called McFall’s appointment a “grotesque and flagrant conflict of interest.”

McFall told the Financial Post that arrangements have already been made with the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner to ensure that her duties as chief of staff can be fulfilled “in an open and transparent manner.”

Still, both Conservative agriculture critic Chris Warkentin, whose own extended family grows grain east of Grande Prairie, Alta., and NDP agriculture critic Ruth Ellen Brosseau say they have questions about how McFall plans to separate her work in the minister’s office from her family’s business.

In a letter to MacAulay Jan. 21, Warkentin said McFall’s “grave conflict of interest” also puts the minister’s judgment under scrutiny.

“Given that Ms. McFall and her relatives have such a sizable stake in one of Canada’s key agricultural industries, this places her and by extension your ability to exercise fair judgment into question,” the letter reads.

“Her past, present and future relationship with the company, including any expected ownership interest going forward, must be explained to the public.”

Those explanations, Warkentin said, should come out in testimony at the yet to be named House of Commons agriculture committee as soon as possible. MacAulay’s office has not said whether he and McFall will appear at the committee, which is expected to start sitting in February.

The opposition also has questions about McFall’s ability to advise the minister on certain issues, given how prominent questions around Canada’s supply management industry have dominated issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“Her ability to make an unbiased decision when a specific policy may affect Canada’s egg industry immediately comes into question, and the public should know whether McFall has committed to recuse herself from any discussion on trade deals, supply management or the supply-managed egg industry,” Warkentin wrote.

The federal government said Jan. 25 that international trade minister Chrystia Freeland would be heading to Auckland, New Zealand, for a TPP signing ceremony set for Feb. 4 but insisted the decision to attend the signing ceremony does not mean Canada is guaranteed to ratify the multibillion-dollar trade deal.

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