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Nunavut premier changes cabinet perks after Iqaluit-based ministers claim home travel

Within the first two weeks of taking over as Nunavut's premier, Joe Savikataaq put his foot down on ministers' home travel allowances, after the ambiguously written policy saw taxpayers foot thousands of dollars on home travel for ministers who live in Iqaluit.

Ministers billed $24K to taxpayers under previous premier before policy was changed

The Legislative Assembly in Iqaluit. Premier Joe Savikataaq changed the application of the ministerial home travel policy in June, after two ministers were allowed to claim home travel to other communities under former Premier Paul Quassa, despite living in Iqaluit. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Within the first two weeks of taking over as Nunavut's premier, Joe Savikataaq put his foot down on ministers' home travel allowances, after the ambiguously written policy saw taxpayers foot thousands of dollars on home travel for ministers who live in Iqaluit.

CBC News has learned, under former Premier Paul Quassa, ministers David Akeeagok and David Joanasie were allowed to claim home travel expenses to other communities, even though their primary residences were in Iqaluit.

The claims were approved because of ambiguity in the home travel policy in the government's ministerial handbook, which sets out the rules for ministers on everything from perks to conflict of interest guidelines. The interpretation of the policy is at the discretion of the premier.

"I interpreted [the policy] differently than the previous premier," Savikataaq told CBC News.

The prologue of the policy states home travel expenses can only be reimbursed to ministers "who reside in a community other than Iqaluit or Apex."

The policy exists to allow those ministers, who often have to be in Iqaluit to perform ministerial duties, to return to their home communities to spend time with family. It covers travel-related expenses like airfare, accommodation and food for themselves or family members.

The ambiguity comes in because the policy's first guideline also says "ministers who represent a non-Iqaluit constituency" may claim home travel expenses between their constituency and Iqaluit.

After the last election, for the first time in Nunavut's history, ministers who were based in Iqaluit were now representing constituencies in other communities.

Akeeagok represents the High Arctic and Joanasie represents South Baffin, but both had listed Iqaluit home and mailing addresses in Elections Nunavut documents when they declared their candidacies in 2017.

Premier Joe Savikataaq says he called ministers David Akeeagok and David Joanasie in for a meeting after he changed the policy. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

$24K claimed in expenses under old interpretation

Under former Premier Paul Quassa's interpretation of the home travel policy, Akeeagok was allowed to make claims for $20,352 and Joanasie for $4,050, according to ministerial expense claims obtained by CBC News through the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Akeeagok's home travel claim was for flying six of his family members with him to Arctic Bay in March.

According to a supporting document, Akeeagok also travelled to Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord as part of community visits. His family stayed in Arctic Bay.

Akeeagok, however, did not claim home travel expenses for himself for the trip. Travel for constituency work is covered by MLAs constituency budgets through the Legislative Assembly.

Joanasie's claim was for a trip he took with four other people to Cape Dorset, also in March.

Savikataaq said ministers residing in Iqaluit are no longer allowed to make those kinds of claims. After changing the application of the home travel policy, he met with Akeeagok and Joanasie.

"I explained to them and I highlighted to them that it states very clearly that this policy is for ministers who do not reside in Iqaluit or Apex. I told them that was my decision and that it was final."

Akeeagok and Joanasie each declined to comment. Quassa would not answer questions regarding his own interpretation of the policy while he was premier.

Ministerial perks under review

Savikataaq's decision has also prompted officials with the Department of Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs (EIA) to develop a working group to revise the entire ministerial handbook to look for other ambiguous policies.

The handbook — officially called the Ministerial Administrative Procedures Manual — is a public document, but it's labelled as "confidential" and "privileged" and isn't publicly available on the government's website. ​CBC News obtained a copy through an access to information request.

The current version of the handbook came out in 2017.

The working group is made up of the deputy minister of EIA and other senior officials from the departments of justice, finance, and human resources. But ultimately, any changes to the policy will go to cabinet for final approval. 

Savikataaq said he hopes to have a revised version in early 2019.

About the Author

Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He got his start with CBC in Fredericton after graduating from St. Thomas University's journalism program. He's also worked two Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.

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