Nunavut Spends: Government dishes out $572K to attend 2018 Northern Lights conference

The government of Nunavut spent more than $572,000 to send 73 people to this year's Northern Light Conference and Trade Show in Ottawa.

'That's a Nunavut urban legend that the government has endless pots of money hiding somewhere'

Nunavut Premier Paul Quassa speaking at the Northern Lights Conference and Trade Show in Ottawa, one of the biggest Northern trade shows in Canada. (Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce)

This is part one of a multi-part series called Nunavut Spends

The government of Nunavut spent more than $572,000 to send dozens of its own officials, public servants and support staff to show off Nunavut at a four-day conference in Ottawa.

Documents obtained by CBC News through Access to Information legislation detail nearly every dollar the territorial government spent in relation to the early-February conference.

The Northern Lights Conference and Trade Show is one of the biggest Northern trade shows in Canada, showcasing economic opportunities and culture in Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut.

It's not just spending money.- Paul Quassa, Nunavut premier

Among the costs to send 73 people to Ottawa on the government's dime included more than $71,000 in hotel expenses, $34,000 in registration fees for the conference, $120,500 in airfare, and $37,000 in per diems, taxis and incidentals.

The territory also contributed $166,000 to the Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce to help host the event, as part of the government's Strategic Investments Program under the Department of Economic Development and Transportation [ED&T]. The department also contributed $25,000 in sponsorship money.

The Government of Nunavut spent more than $572,000 to attend the 2018 Northern Lights conference and trade show in Ottawa in February. Above, Canada's three territorial premiers, and the Foreign Minister of Greenland participate in a panel discussion. (Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce)

Nunavut Premier Paul Quassa said the conference and trade show is a worthwhile event.

"It gives us an opportunity to show what we can offer and what we are doing in Nunavut to southern audiences," he said, emphasizing the conference only comes around every two years.

"It's an eye-opener for a southern audience and certainly gives our Northern businesses an opportunity to try and get some working relations with southern firms."

Asked if all those opportunities are worth $572,000, Quassa replied: "It certainly [is]."

"It gives us an opportunity [for introductions] and get something back in return," said Quassa, citing long-term investments. "It's not just spending money. It's also reaping [from those introductions]."

Government says Northern Lights Conference is 'vital'

This year's Northern Lights event drew more than 1,500 participants, according to the Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce [BRCC], which co-hosted the event along with its counterpart organization from northern Labrador.

There are people going hungry. There are children going hungry.- MLA John Main

A return-on-investment analysis prepared by ED&T says the conference is a "vital business networking opportunity and venue to show Inuit art, culture, and music to a national and international audience."

Among the 939 registered delegates, 22 per cent were from Nunavut, 29 per cent were from Newfoundland and Labrador (which includes Nunatsiavut), and 17 per cent were from Quebec (which includes Nunavik).

The remaining third of the delegates were from other parts of southern Canada and abroad.

Factoring in foot traffic from the general public who did not have a ticket, the BRCC estimates around 6,000 people visited the Shaw Centre in Ottawa during the conference.

'The myth of the never-ending pot of money'

The issue around the government's spending for the Northern Lights conference first arose in March, when Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main grilled the premier in the Legislature.

Main stressed the spending needed to be well-justified and requested Quassa table all the expenses relating to the conference.

Quassa said he didn't hear the question, or didn't understand, but responded saying Nunavut wasn't the only jurisdiction there — though he didn't address the request to table the expenses.

When we, as a government, waste money, we are taking it from housing programs, we're taking it from food programs.- MLA John Main

CBC News submitted its Access to Information request later that afternoon.

On the last day of the Legislature sitting, Main also submitted a formal written question to Quassa on the issue.

Main has since received his response and plans to table it when the Legislature resumes on Thursday.

Speaking with CBC News on the findings from the Access to Information request, Main reiterated the need to justify such spending.

"As I mentioned in the Assembly, there are people going hungry. There are children going hungry. There are people without homes, there are mental health issues, and there are health-care issues," he said.

"We so often, as Nunavummiut, we hear, 'Well there just isn't any money for that type of project. There isn't enough money for this. There isn't enough money for that.' And on the other hand when the government goes and spends money in this fashion, it kind of contributes to the myth of never-ending pot of government money that's out there.

"That's a Nunavut urban legend that the government has endless pots of money hiding somewhere. I think that's a myth that we need to do away with."

CBC's Nick Murray interviews Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes. Hickes says it's not always about the presentations, but also the 'water-cooler talk' that comes after. (David Gunn/CBC)

Main, the former president of the Kivalliq Chamber of Commerce and a former member of the board of directors of the Nunavut Development Corporation, said he doesn't question the importance of trade shows and their benefits, but says the central issue for the government is properly spending its limited amount of money.

"When we, as a government, waste money, we are taking it from housing programs, we're taking it from food programs," Main said.

"We need to realize there are limited funds to be spent in this territory and the needs are just so incredible."

Opportunity to educate people is a win

Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes has attended the conference twice, both as a regular member and as a cabinet minister. He said the value in the conference is the workshops and the presentations with like-minded people or businesses.

It's not always the presentations. It's the mingling after. The water-cooler talk.- Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes

"It's not always the presentations. It's the mingling after. The water-cooler talk. I find those as valuable, if not more valuable, than the presentations," he said, adding it's hard to put a number on any return on the investment to attend those conferences.

"You get the one right person at the one right time, and it could be worth billions of dollars to the territory. Or you could have a thousand people in a room and not see a lot of benefit to it. So, it's really hard to quantify and it's not something you can quantify from a one-time event."

Hickes acknowledges this year's conference was better attended than others he'd seen, but he questioned the overall value to Nunavummiut.

"There is value there. Is it worth $572,000? I've yet to see," he said.

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Nick Murray


Nick Murray is a CBC News reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He specializes in investigative reporting and access to information legislation. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports.