One of Julian Fantino's first orders of business last summer as the new minister for international development was to order up a meet-and-greet for his bureaucrats — to the tune of $25,000.
Fantino directed the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to organize a town hall meeting with employees in September and include the minister's handpicked motivational speaker.
"We must be accountable for every nickel we spend." —Julian Fantino, in a speech before CIDA staff
"My purpose today is simple, to meet you, pass on my early impressions, to thank you for efforts in helping me with my transition in this role and to begin to chart our path to the future," Fantino told the employees.
Documents and a recording of the town hall were released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Fantino replaced Bev Oda after she retired from politics last July. Oda had embarrassed the government with a series of spending gaffes, including an unexplained upgrade to a posh hotel in London, England.
Like Fantino, Oda had also held a town hall meeting with 1,200 CIDA staff just six months before. At Fantino's event, employees who were in remote locations were linked in via telephone, and local employees gathered in a large convention hall in Gatineau, Que.
'Financial pressure' noted
"We must be accountable for every nickel we spend," Fantino said in his opening speech to the gathering.
"We must ensure that the decisions we make with the resources we are given can be justified as mission critical. We all know our mission is critical to millions of people living in the developing world."
The government announced a $319.2 million cut to CIDA in last year's budget.
One senior public servant noted the town hall itself would have to be explained and accounted for.
"The financial pressure that this creates should be identified as part of your mid-year review exercise," the employee wrote in an email to another bureaucrat tasked with organizing the event.
Fantino had asked bureaucrats to invite Maurice O'Callaghan, a longtime professional speaker who the minister had hired twice before while working with police forces in Ontario.
$5K speaker spoke for 40 minutes
"I've brought him in to speak to different organizations that I happened to head at the time and the feedback has always been tremendous, very inspiring and encouraged by the wonderful life changing perspectives that he brings to the speaking role," Fantino told the assembled crowd on September 18.
O'Callaghan spoke for about 40 minutes in English, offering the CIDA staff a number of life strategies including seeing the positive side of life and letting go of anger and hate.
"Holding a grudge is the most destructive thing you can do to yourself, because day after day it eats away at your immune system, your peace of mind," O'Callaghan told the group.
"The past is a great place to visit, but you can't live there. You go back for two reasons — to celebrate, to learn. You don't go back to replay all that stuff that upset you."
O'Callaghan said in an interview that he had received letters and emails from some of the CIDA employees who had attended.
Audio-visual set-up cost $10K
"Julian never hires me with any direction other than 'do your thing,"' said O'Callaghan.
"He knows what my thing is, which is I'm going to make people look at themselves differently, look at what they do differently, and take a different approach to where they work each day because it's important and it's part of their legacy."
O'Callaghan's fees totalled $5,888, including travel expenses. The most expensive part of the event was the audio-visual set-up and interpretation services, which set the agency back more than $10,000.
A spokesman for Fantino pointed out that the minister had directed the department to keep hospitality and room booking expenses low.
"As the incoming Minister, the town hall was organized to give all CIDA employees the opportunity to meet with the Minister and senior Agency officials regarding the direction that CIDA would take in the coming months," said Daniel Bezalel Richardsen.
Expenses within Treasury Board guidelines
"Effort was taken by CIDA to minimize cost wherever possible at the direction of the Minister."
Bezalel Richardsen also underline that the expenses were within Treasury Board guidelines.
The town hall also featured a question and answer period with employees.
A few staff members took subtle swipes at the former minister — one pointed out Bev Oda had not stayed to listen to employees' questions during the spring town hall meeting.
Another pointed out that agency work that needed approval was getting bottlenecked inside the minister's office.
"Will we be expecting the same standards as our previous minister or are there new ones under development?" one employee asked to laughter in the room.