Leader of seniors advocacy group rejects MP’s accusation of bias

An official at Canada’s largest independent advocacy group for seniors, which has occasionally been critical of the Conservative government, says she is shocked that a Conservative MP is accusing her and her organization of being partisan.

Paul Calandra, the MP for Oak-Ridges-Markham, north of Toronto, slipped into the end of a Commons finance committee meeting that was holding prebudget consultations on Tuesday and spent all his of allotted time accusing Susan Eng, CARP’s head of advocacy, of campaigning for the Liberals.

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Mr. Calandra said he recalled an event organized by CARP that he had attended in his riding in March of 2011, just weeks before the country was plunged into an election. Julian Fantino, who at that time held the seniors portfolio in the federal cabinet, was the headline speaker.

“I was a bit thrown back. You were actually campaigning for the Liberal candidate in the riding at that time. It was days before the election and there was, of course, a great deal of Liberal campaign literature strewn throughout the event at the same time that a minister was there announcing some great news for seniors,” Mr. Calandra told Ms. Eng as the committee and the public looked on.

“So I am a little bit worried at that point,” he said, “that, on behalf of the organization that you lead, has it become so political in nature that, as opposed to advocating on behalf of seniors, you are actually advocating on behalf of a political party or an ideology that you have?”

Ms. Eng was taken aback by the attack. “It is quite an accusation and it’s inaccurate,” she replied. She pointed out that it was Mr. Fantino who topped all of CARP’s promotional literature for the event.

“I think that you will see from our work that we are not partisan and our members also see that we are not,” Ms. Eng said. “If our members, who vote across the spectrum, were to think that we were acting in a partisan manner, I can assure you that they would let us know.”

Mr. Calandra did not return phone calls to The Globe on Wednesday.

CARP has, at times, panned the policies of the Conservative government. It recently conducted a poll that found that a significant majority of its members opposed increasing the age at which Canadians can receive Old Age Security – one of the measures that was passed into law in last spring’s omnibus bill.

But the group also prides itself on being non-partisan and has praised many of the government’s initiatives including its decision to top up the Guaranteed Income Supplement for Canada’s poorest seniors, its approach to dealing with elder abuse, its funding of caregiver support, its move to raise the mandatory retirement age at the federal level, and its approach to helping people save better for their own retirement.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Ms. Eng said CARP deliberately arranged the March, 2011, event in a nursing home near Mr. Fantino’s riding to make it easy for him to get there. Because the group tries to be non-partisan, it also invited representatives of the other parties to attend, she said. And Michael Ignatieff, who was then the Liberal leader, decided to show up.

“He brings an entourage and he sends out a media advisory and of course the media come along,” Ms. Eng said.

Mr. Ignatieff and his people ended up working the room and handing out literature, she said. But their politicking and decision to pass around pamphlets had nothing to do with CARP, Ms. Eng said. “We don’t do that.”

And neither she, nor CARP, have ever backed the Liberals, Ms. Eng said.

In fact, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair will host a townhall meeting with the group on Friday in Toronto. And Alice Wong, the Minister of State for Seniors in the Conservative government, was the guest at CARP’s last general meeting.

CARP’s members, Ms. Eng said, are “not a crowd that is predisposed to opposing this government, not at all. And certainly if I were to start to show preference or any kind of bias, they would come after me. So I am very careful about that.”

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