North·Exclusive

Nunavut Spends: The case for cabinet and its $7K chauffeur bill at Ottawa conference

Nunavut sent its entire cabinet to the Northern Lights conference in February, which sparked questions about how much it cost to attend.

'I personally participated in 20 meetings,' premier says

Paul Quassa shakes the hand of a delegate from Greenland at the Northern Lights conference in Ottawa in February. (Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce)

This is the third part of a multi-part series called Nunavut Spends.

When the issues around the Northern Lights conference first arose in the Nunavut Legislature in March, the first question from MLA John Main was, "who made the decision that the whole cabinet should attend?"

Premier Paul Quassa replied at the time, saying the cabinet as a whole decided to attend "for introduction" reasons, so that others will know who they'll work with in Nunavut.

According to documents obtained by CBC News through Access to Information, the Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs Department (EIA) sent the largest contingent to the four-day Ottawa conference and trade show out of any government department, billing more than $70,000 for 27 people to attend.

You can judge for yourself who did what down there.- George Hickes, Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA

That included the premier, cabinet ministers and all of their executive assistants, Nunavut Commissioner Nellie Kusugak, six EIA staffers, and the premier's spouse.

The government has faced questions over spending more than $572,000 altogether on the conference in February.

Quassa had arguably the busiest schedule of anybody who was sent to Ottawa on the territory's dime.

"I personally participated in 20 meetings in the four days that we were at Northern Lights," he said in an interview with CBC News.

Those meetings included two luncheons (one of which he was the keynote speaker), meetings with the other territorial premiers, and a meeting on Parliament Hill with Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.

Nunavut Premier Paul Quassa (centre-left) participates in a panel discussion among Northern leaders, amid a packed schedule during the Northern Lights conference and trade show in Ottawa. (Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce)

Scheduling issues

Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes has attended the Northern Lights conference in the past as both a regular MLA and as a cabinet minister.

He questioned the value of sending the entire cabinet this year.

"When you go over the list of meetings the different ministers went to, to some I think it was a great value. To others, you can kind of judge for yourself on who did what down there," Hickes said.

Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes has attended the conference twice in the past, once as a cabinet minister. (David Gunn/CBC)

He acknowledged the difficulty in scheduling meetings with federal ministers on short notice, whose schedules are set months in advance.

Nunavut Housing Corporation Minister Lorne Kusugak, for instance, tried to meet with federal infrastructure officials and with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation while in Ottawa, but ran into scheduling issues. He still met with Agnico Eagle and Kivalliq Inuit Association officials, had small one-off meetings, and spent time at Nunavut government booths at the conference, according to his schedule.

"My only concern was the value to Nunavummiut. And to have a blanket, 'all cabinet members must attend,' and then along with the entourage that go along with that, was there a value there? I can't say whether there was or wasn't," Hickes said.

'We're open for business'

Quassa reiterated the need to send the entire cabinet down as a way to introduce the new government to stakeholders, both federally and in the private sector.

While only three of the eight members of cabinet actually met with federal ministers, according to a meetings list provided by EIA, Quassa stressed the importance of investors to meet Nunavut's leaders face to face.

Elisapee Sheutiapik, then-Minister of Economic Development and Transportation, takes the podium at the 2018 Northern Lights Conference and Trade Show in Ottawa. (Baffin Regional Chamber of Commerce)

Government officials also say from an economic development standpoint, cabinet's attendance proved valuable. They say when investors ponder whether to spend millions of dollars in the territory, gauging the verbal tone of a new government plays a big part.

"We're open for business. And I think it was an eye-opener for all the ministers that were there," Quassa said, adding not all ministers stayed for the duration of the conference.

$7,000 car expense

One noteworthy expense among EIA's bills included a $7,207.35 invoice for a car service for the premier for the week.

Quassa said having a car service is standard practice, particularly to drive up to meetings on Parliament Hill where only security-cleared car companies have access.

However, in one instance the service was used to shuttle its occupants from the Chateau Laurier Hotel in downtown Ottawa, to the Shaw Centre where the conference was held — a 300-metre walk.

The car made five trips between both venues that day at a cost of $1,822.72.

"I had to keep going back and forth for various different functions," Quassa said.

"And again, it's not just myself, but also for premier's staff and so forth that are there. And it's important that we're there, wherever the event is taking place and to be on time," he said, adding he didn't know why he was being questioned on the car service.

"Again, as I said, the weather [was] pretty bad while we were there. The roads were very slippery, there was freezing rain at times," said Quassa.

"We had to be there on time."

Have a tip? Reach Nick Murray at nick.murray@cbc.ca

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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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