North·Exclusive

Nunavut Spends: Gov't says it secured money for high-speed internet at 'sidebar meetings' in Ottawa

The Nunavut government says more than half a million dollars spent on a four-day conference in Ottawa was money well-spent. It says it secured millions of dollars for studying an undersea high-speed fibre optic line thanks to the 2018 Northern Lights conference.

Top government department spenders at Northern Lights conference dished out about $140K

Lori Kimball is the deputy minister for Nunavut's Community and Government Services Department. That department alone spent more than $61,000 to send 15 people to the four-day conference in Ottawa, according to documents obtained by CBC News through Access to Information. (CBC)

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

The Nunavut government says thanks to its extra meetings in Ottawa during the Northern Lights conference, Iqaluit may be connected to high-speed fibre-optic internet as early as 2019.

Lori Kimball, the deputy minister for Community and Government Services (CGS), said her department's focus in Ottawa was to secure money for broadband connectivity.

"Specifically, an undersea fibre study this summer. And as a result of [those meetings], in March we secured $4 million," Kimball said.

"So I think that's a pretty good return on investment."

Our job as government is to lobby for funding.- Lori Kimball, deputy minister for Community and Government Services

The government as a whole spent more than $572,000 on the Ottawa event, sending 73 people to the four-day conference and trade show in February.

All about the 'sidebar meetings,' says Kimball

The $4 million secured comes from the federal government's Building Canada Fund, an $8.8 billion pool of money that expired in 2014. CGS had projects under this fund, and the new money was possible thanks to interest accumulated from them.

With this money, Kimball said the hope is to study the underwater geology between Nunavut and Greenland this summer — which is where they're hoping to run the fibre line.

It's then a matter of securing more federal funding to build the connection.

Asked if the fibre optic project would be at the stage it is now if they hadn't gone to Ottawa in February, Kimball replied: "I don't think so."

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

"It wasn't the conference itself, it was the sidebar meetings," Kimball said.

"You can't get funding if you don't have face time. Our job as government is to lobby for funding, lobby for the resources Nunavummiut need. And I think this conference does that."

Of the nine departments that sent staff to the conference, Kimball's department, and the Department of Economic Development and Transportation, were two of the top three spenders. 

CGS spent more than $61,000 to send 15 people, including Kimball.

The department sent eight information technology staffers who had 11 meetings, including one with Microsoft on cybersecurity, according to documents obtained by CBC News through Access to Information. Two other community infrastructure staffers used their time down South to visit Environment Canada's offices.

Three employees were tasked with "manning a booth," without having attended other meetings outside the conference.

Disappointing results, but lessons learned

Specifically at the Northern Lights conference, CGS held a number of information sessions on capital projects, including the Qikiqtani Correctional Healing Centre and the marine infrastructure projects in Iqaluit and Pond Inlet.

Kimball said the government's target audience for these kinds of sessions is to attract new players to Nunavut.

The bidding process for those respective projects closed recently.

However, the Qikiqtani Correctional Healing Centre project received only one bid in the end, and five of seven bidders for the marine infrastructure projects already had footprints in Nunavut.

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)

While Kimball said they were disappointed with those results, there was still value in those sessions.

"Our goal and objective was to demystify how to do business in Nunavut," Kimball said, adding there were 13 companies that attended the information session at the conference.

But she said one of the major hurdles for southern firms bidding on big projects is the territory's bid adjustment policy, which gives advantages to Inuit-owned firms.

"So how do we attract them to do that, when they don't feel like they have a chance to win? That raises some bigger questions, and I think that was a really good lesson learned."

Selling Nunavut to investors

The Department of Economic Development and Transportation also had a large contingent in Ottawa: 15 people at a cost of nearly $78,000.

Assistant Deputy Minister Bernie MacIsaac said the conference is an opportunity for Nunavut to sell itself in the South to business leaders who may otherwise not ever visit the territory.

"People are interested in Nunavut, they're interested in investing up here. They want to talk to us [about] what Nunavut is like [and] what we can do as a government to help them," he said.

"Everybody that was there for the government of Nunavut probably did that 10, 20, 30 times a day."

Bernie MacIsaac, the assistant deputy minister of economic development, says 95 per cent of Nunavummiut during a territory-wide consultation, say economic development to them is getting a job. He says selling the territory to investors is crucial in making that happen (CBC)

His department also had a laundry list of meetings in Ottawa.

And while he couldn't point to an immediate return of $4 million like the other department, MacIsaac said there's a bigger picture.

"If you were to ask all the people in Nunavut what their definition of economic development is ... about 95 per cent [are] going to say economic development to them, individually, is a job," MacIsaac said, adding the department visited every community to ask that question.

"In order to get a job, you need investment. It's as simple as that. ... And in order to get investment, you've got to promote this territory," said MacIsaac.

"So we've got to sell the territory and we've got to get people interested in this territory. And if we don't go to them, not many of them are going to come to us because it's a difficult place to come to, and it's very expensive."

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

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bernie MacIsaac was the deputy minister of economic development. In fact, he's the assistant deputy minister.
    May 24, 2018 7:53 AM CT

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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