Canada’s new lobbying rules could end politicians’ sponsored trips to Israel

Many groups stand to be affected by new federal lobbying rules that took effect on July 1. But these changes could have disproportionately adverse repercussions for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which currently provides funding for Israel trips taken by Canadian politicians.

The new code, put out by the Office of the Commissioner on Lobbying in Ottawa, limits the amount a member of Parliament or senator can receive from a lobbyist to $40 for a single gift and $200 for an entire year.

Further, the new code includes sponsored travel in its definition of such gifts.

The revised rules and their impact on CIJA, which has 18 members of its staff registered as lobbyists in Ottawa, were placed in the spotlight following a report in the Globe and Mail on Sept. 17. According to the newspaper, CIJA and its predecessor, the Canada-Israel Committee, have sponsored the trips of 800 members of Parliament and senators to Israel since 1973. 

CIJA pointed out to The CJN that others in the political sector—such as Parliament Hill staff and party activists—also had an opportunity to participate in trips to Israel for these past 50 years.

Shimon Koffler Fogel, CIJA’s president and CEO, says that it is important to note that the organization does not regard these missions as an opportunity for lobbying. 

“They are, in a fundamental way, educational experiences. Participants meet the full range of stakeholders in the regions—Israelis from across the political spectrum, Palestinians, Druze, UN officials, etc. The encounters are never filtered, nor is the program manipulated to favour a particular narrative,” he said.

“The reputation of our program is stellar and is clearly distinguished from political junkets. We have been transparent about the program, the participants, and the costs from the very beginning, and each invitation comes with a clear commitment that there are no strings attached to their participation and no expectations that the participants will adopt particular positions on the issues following the trip.”

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada, another organization cited in the Globe report, would not have to adhere to the same rules as CIJA, as it has no registered lobbyists in Ottawa. While it similarly organizes foreign travel for parliamentarians, the Taipei office serves as the de facto embassy for the government of Taiwan—and its officials are accredited foreign representatives.

A report on sponsored travel released in March by the Office of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner showed that CIJA spent over $92,000 for transport, accommodation and gifts for parliamentarians in May 2022. Politicians across the ideological spectrum and from all over the country have taken part on missions to Israel organized by CIJA over the years. 

One of those participants was John Aldag, a Liberal member of Parliament for Cloverdale-Langley City in British Columbia, who traveled to Israel with CIJA in 2022.

“It was an absolutely amazing trip. I am not sure if I would have made it to Israel on my own and been able to gain the insights that I did while there,” Aldag told The CJN. “While I understand the reasoning behind the changes, this is a long-standing program that provides valuable information to parliamentarians which cannot be found otherwise.”

While CIJA stressed that it did not believe it had been the target of the new rules, or that they reflect an anti-Israel bias, the organization does believe it has been hampered in its efforts to promote Israel. 

“We were very disappointed with the change in rules. There was no indication in the lead-up to the announcement that new restrictions on sponsored travel were being contemplated. Moreover, it flies in the face of the specific exemption extended to sponsored travel by Parliament—essentially, the Commissioner over-riding the will of Parliament,” Fogel told The CJN.

“The change to rule implies less than proper conduct on our part in sponsoring these missions—that somehow we are asserting undue influence. There is no evidence that such influence has ever been exerted. To the contrary, I would challenge anyone to identify a current or former parliamentarian who has participated in a mission who would suggest otherwise.”

In a nutshell, Fogel said, CIJA, does not view this program as a gift, but rather an opportunity to learn about an important part of the —one that impacts the lives of Canadians living in most constituencies across the country.

“We would welcome Parliament allocating resources for independent study missions like they do in the U.S. They don’t, so we have stepped in.”

An advocacy agent of Jewish federations across Canada, CIJA designs and implements strategies, as it says, “to ensure that leaders in government, media, civil society, business, and academia understand the Jewish perspective and that it is considered in Canada’s public policy discussion.”  Among its many objectives are combating antisemitism and bolstering Canadian–Israeli ties.

The new rules, changed from a 2015 version, were published in the Canada Gazette, the government’s official newspaper, on May 27, before they went into effect.  Their stated aim is “to foster transparent and ethical lobbying of federal officials. As such, lobbyists should never provide any gift—directly or indirectly—to an official that you lobby or expect to lobby, other than a low-value gift that is token of appreciation or promotional item.”

According to the Office of the Commissioner on Lobbying, the 2023 amendments seek to “strengthen the ethical culture of lobbying, avoid placing officials in real or apparent conflict of interest situation and contribute to public confidence in the integrity of federal government institutions and decision-making.”

“Allowing sponsored travel would not be consistent with the fundamental objectives and expectations set out in the code, including that lobbyists avoid placing officials in conflict-of-interest situations and that they do not lobby officials who could reasonably be seen to have a sense of obligation towards them,” said Manon Dion, a spokesperson for the agency.

It would also be inconsistent, the office maintains, to prohibit a lobbyist from providing a token of appreciation or promotional item to an official valued at more than $40, but to allow them to provide sponsored travel worth thousands of dollars.

Canada’s Lobbying Act was first cited in 1985 and assented to in September 1988.  It has been amended many times since then.

The CJN also reached out to the Jewish National Fund of Canada.  CEO Lance Davis said the new travel rules will not have an impact on the organization.