TORONTO - An Ontario cabinet minister who heard complaints against MP Ruby Dhalla from two caregivers weeks before the controversy erupted will appear before the federal parliamentary committee investigating the allegations.
Premier Dalton McGuinty said Monday his labour minister, Peter Fonseca, has agreed to participate in the proceedings after being asked to appear in Ottawa by the standing committee for citizenship and immigration.
"If there's anything at all that we might do together, the federal and provincial governments, to provide more support, better protection to our live-in caregivers here in Ontario, then we welcome that opportunity, and Minister Fonseca looks forward to appearing there," McGuinty told the legislature.
Fonseca said he was asked to speak Thursday but was hoping to appear Tuesday, though he was still waiting to hear back from committee officials about the exact timing.
"I look forward to being able to present in front of that committee all that I've been hearing from live-in caregivers and what they've been able to share with me around a flawed and broken federal program," Fonseca said, adding that his testimony will not deal with specifics about Dhalla's case or anyone else's.
He has repeatedly tried to blame federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney for problems with the program than brings live-in caregivers to Canada.
"I've always wanted to stay focused on what we can do for these vulnerable workers and ensure that protections are in place there for them," Fonseca said.
Dhalla has denied allegations made by two live-in caregivers that she withheld their passports and paid them only a fraction of the minimum wage when they worked for her family, and the allegations of a third caregiver who has also alleged mistreatment.
Magdalene Gordo, 31, and Richelyn Tongson, 37, say they were hired in early 2008 to work in Dhalla's family home in Mississauga, Ont., to care for her mother. A third caregiver, Lyle Alvarez, says she was severely overworked and underpaid as well.
The first two women told their stories to Fonseca and Education Minister Kathleen Wynne during a roundtable discussion last month, and were advised to call a toll-free hotline that wasn't operational until the following week.
Wynne has also been asked to speak to the committee but has declined, calling it a labour issue.
"It was an invitation to come and speak about the live-in caregiver program, and Minister Fonseca has carriage of that file," Wynne said.
"He'll be going representing the government."
The Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats have accused the two ministers of staying quiet because the complaints involved a prominent Liberal MP, and have repeatedly asked for Fonseca's resignation.
Opposition Leader Bob Runciman said Monday he hopes the committee pushes Fonseca on what he calls "moral and ethical failures" - accusations he believes the province is trying to shield Wynne from.
"The bottom line here is to protect Wynne - she's the important minister in this twosome," Runciman said.
"He's expendable and they're going to send him up there to be the sacrificial lamb. And all he's going to do, apparently, is spin the same lines he's been spinning in here, which is saying really nothing about what transpired and why they made the decisions they made."
Regardless of Fonseca's plans, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she believes the committee will bring up specifics about Dhalla's case.
"Both of these ministers were derelict in their duty in terms of making sure that the laws in the province were upheld and that they did proactive work around having these issues investigated," she said.
In his first day back in the legislature since the controversy broke last Wednesday, McGuinty said he commended Fonseca and Wynne for hosting the roundtables and taking the time to meet with live-in caregivers and hear their stories.
He has lashed out at the opposition parties and reporters for focusing on the allegations against Dhalla when the ministers heard about 30 similar stories from caregivers, calling opposition demands to jail Dhalla "entirely inappropriate."
"We think the appropriate thing to do in the circumstances is to apprise those women of their rights, to encourage them to follow up should they feel it important to do so," McGuinty said Monday.
Dhalla, who has given up her post as Liberal multiculturalism critic while she tries to clear her name, has called the allegations an attack on her political career.