The board that advises the federal cabinet minister in charge of Canada's controversial Nutrition North food subsidy program is almost entirely made up of Conservative donors, public records show.
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Five of the six people appointed to the Nutrition North advisory board have donated money to the Conservatives.
One of the five Conservative donors also gave to the Liberals, while a sixth member has not contributed to any party.
The individual donations range from $20 to $1,200 and span a time frame of February 2007 to July 2014.
And at least three board members appear to be involved with organizations or businesses that have received federal government funding, either directly or indirectly.
Board chair Wilfred Wilcox is on the board of the Kitikmeot Corporation, which along with another firm operates a company called Kitikmeot Caterers — one of the companies involved in the construction of the government's Canadian High Arctic Research Station in the Nunavut community of Cambridge Bay.
'I don't see how making a few donations is wrong': board member
In an email, Wilcox said he is not involved in Kitikmeot's day-to-day business decisions.
Wilcox also owns a company called Jago Services, which does plumbing, heating and electrical work.
Jago Services is a subcontractor to Sanaqatiit Construction Ltd., another of the companies working on the research station. Jago got the contract through an open tender process, Wilcox said.
Elections Canada records show Wilcox — who was appointed to the Nutrition North board in November 2010 and named its chair in May 2012 — donated to the Conservatives in March 2013 and June 2014.
"I don't have a problem supporting the Conservatives. I believe they are doing a good job and I respect the approach to getting things done," Wilcox wrote.
"Not everything is easy and a good level of prudence in spending is appropriate and I don't see how making a few donations is wrong."
Wilcox said he and his wife have known Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the Conservative government's Nunavut MP, for a long time.
"She is from our area and we are proud to support her through a few donations as we do many other causes and community events."
Board members 'entitled to freedom of expression'
The Nutrition North program, a $60-million annual food subsidy intended to help defray the high cost of nutritious food in the North, has been under scrutiny ever since auditor general Michael Ferguson's fall report came out in November.
In it, Ferguson revealed that the program's overseers are largely in the dark about whether Nutrition North is actually doing anything for the people who need it the most.
The office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, who is responsible for the program, did not directly respond to a detailed list of questions, but a spokeswoman did provide a general statement about the donations.
"These individuals are entitled to freedom of expression and are not banned from donating to political parties," Andrea Richer wrote in an email.
"The ethical and political activity guidelines for public office holders do not prohibit political activity."
NDP, Liberals weigh in
It casts doubt on the credibility of the board when so many of its members gave money to the Conservatives, said Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, the party's deputy leader.
"There's been a clear failure to deliver the terms and conditions of this program," he said in a telephone interview, referring to the auditor general's report.
"That would lead one to be very suspicious that the folks on this board are enjoying a political sinecure and not doing their job."
The NDP also weighed in.
"The Harper government is always looking to game the system for the benefit of their pals — even when it comes to a program that is about ensuring that families are able to feed their children," Charlie Angus, the party's ethics critic, said in an emailed statement.
"Nutrition North has failed and it is unacceptable that Conservative patronage buddies are benefiting at the trough while northern families are doing without."
More Tory ties
Nutrition North board member and Conservative donor Elisabeth Cayen heads up an organization that recently received tens of thousands of dollars from the federal government.
Last January, Aglukkaq announced the Nunavut Fisheries Training Consortium in Iqaluit would receive $58,000 for enhancements to a training simulator.
Cayen, who is the consortium's executive director, is quoted in a news release dated Jan. 15, 2014, that accompanied the spending announcement.
She said part of her job at the consortium is to submit proposals for government funding and it is up to the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency to decide which projects to fund.
Elections Canada records show Cayen, who was appointed to the Nutrition North advisory board in November 2012, made two separate donations to the federal Conservatives — the first in May 2011 and the second in June 2013.
Her husband, Greg Cayen, is listed as a director of the Nunavut Conservative Association, which organizes Aglukkaq's electoral ground game. His biography on the New Westminster College website says he was once the president of the Nunavut Conservative Electoral District Association.
Elections Canada records show he has also been a regular donor to the Conservatives.
Elisabeth Cayen said she is on the Nutrition North advisory board because of her experience working in the North.
"With regard to Nutrition North, this is a volunteer board that I sit on with the goal of helping to make nutritious food more affordable in the north," she wrote in an email.
"I have lived in the North for almost 25 years and would hope that my experience could be helpful in this endeavour."
Former Northwest Territories premier Nellie Cournoyea, appointed to the Nutrition North advisory board in November 2010, has made three donations to the Conservatives between November 2013 and June 2014, Elections Canada records show.
Former NWT premier Nellie Cournoyea also on board
Cournoyea also gave money to the Northwest Territories Conservative Association in June and September of 2012.
She has also donated to the Yukon Conservative Association.
Liberal MP Scott Andrews wrote to Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson last year about an Aglukkaq fundraiser in Ottawa at which Cournoyea appeared as a special guest.
Cournoyea is chair and chief executive officer of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.
Andrews pointed out that a sub-entity of the corporation received funding in August 2013 from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, which Aglukkaq heads up.
He also said the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation received money from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
Dawson looked into the complaint but chose not to launch a formal investigation over the fundraiser, a spokeswoman said.
Cournoyea has yet to respond to a request for comment.
Two other members of the Nutrition North advisory board also gave money to the Conservatives.
'I think it's left to everyone's judgement'
The newest appointee, Kristin Erickson, donated to the Saint Boniface Conservative Association in Manitoba in May 2013, before she joined the advisory board last October.
She has yet to respond to a request for comment.
Danielle Medina, the advisory board's technical adviser since November 2010, has donated several times to both the Liberals and the Conservatives between 2007 and 2014.
In an interview, Medina — who has a background in nutrition and food safety — said she made the donations to receive tax credits and doesn't consider herself to have any particular political affiliation.
Nor, she added, does she have a problem with her fellow board members making donations.
"I think it's left to everyone's judgment," she said.
"In my case, I give to everybody.... Some people maybe like the Conservative party and they want to support the Conservatives, but I think it's a private situation. I don't think it has anything to do with the (Nutrition North) program."
A sixth board member, Michele Wood, has not given money to any political party.
Members of the Nutrition North advisory board do not receive a salary, but are reimbursed for any expenses directly related to their duties.