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'No records' of trade deals landed by six-figure Ford appointees

Multiple deals are in the works, but getting them signed is a trial in logistics, sources say
Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade Victor Fedeli in Ontario's legislature on Aug. 9, 2022.

The six-figure Doug Ford appointees tasked with drumming up international trade haven't landed any deals, documents show — though government sources say a handful are inches from the finish line.

Opposition parties said it's another example of the government gravy train giving plush gigs to their friends. The premier said the agents' work selling Ontario doesn't always show up on paper.

The Trillium filed a freedom-of-information request for any deals that have happened because of the province's three agents-general.

"A thorough search was conducted and no responsive records were located," read the response from the Ministry of Economic Development's FOI office.

"Ontario is engaging with U.S. states regarding potential agreements. Work in this area is supported by our Agents-General in the U.S.; however, discussions have not yet concluded."

But discussions have concluded, according to staff in Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli's office, speaking on background. Deals with a handful of northeastern state governments are done, but they have been left unsigned — for years, in some cases — because of scheduling conflicts, they said.

Politicians love to sign major international deals in person. COVID put a stop to that. Even after lockdowns, it's still hard to get a governor and the premier in the same room. The deals have been held up because of U.S. elections, the queen's death and even Ford's daughter's wedding, the sources said.

The scale and type of agreements are confidential, they said.

Ontario's agents-general, located in Chicago, Dallas and London, U.K., are tasked with selling the province as an attractive place to invest. They're "accountable to real metrics, including deals closed and businesses helped," the government has said

Each agent-general is paid between $165,000 to $185,000/year.

Premier Doug Ford appointed four of them in June 2019 — the first time the positions had existed since 1994. Two of those appointments, Tyler Albrecht and Taylor Shields, were quickly rescinded after it was revealed they had connections to Ford's then-chief of staff, Dean French.

The government appears to have edited their names out of the news release, which is still online.

A screenshot from the original news release about agents-general appointments.
The news release viewed in 2023.

Earl Provost — the former chief of staff to Ford's late brother, Rob, when he was Toronto mayor — and former Ontario Progressive Conservative Party president Jag Badwal still hold the positions, in Chicago and Dallas, respectively.

In 2021, the government added Sophia Arvanitis in London. She worked in former Toronto mayor John Tory's office for five and a half years.

Arvanitis is working on two more deals in western Europe, which the government hopes to get finished in the coming weeks, the Fedeli staffers said.

But landing deals isn't their only job, Ford said.

"Not everything — I can say, a new company comes in because of the work they've done, or they tilled the soil — it's not always in an area that you can find (in an FOI request)," he told The Trillium at an unrelated presser in May.

"And if they aren't doing work around the world, we'll hold them accountable, I promise you that."

Agents-general could be valuable, but only if they can justify their existence, Canadian Taxpayers Federation Ontario Director Jay Goldberg said. The taxpayers federation advocates for lower government spending.

"Whether that means laying out investment deals or trade deals that were successful as a result of their presence, whether it has to do with improving relationships," Goldberg said. "But it certainly needs to be better than just saying, 'We have no record of accomplishing anything, but trust us, we're useful.'"

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the lack of publicly announced deals was "disappointing" but no surprise.

"We know that ... Doug Ford tried to appoint his pals and his pals' children. We've seen that over and over again," she said.

"And if all they're doing is holding fancy receptions and not delivering economic opportunity and investment for Ontario, then I think we should be rethinking either who's been appointed, or whether these roles are working at all for Ontario."