Ottawa·Analysis

City of Ottawa's 2017 party planners lack transparency, critics charge

As the countdown to what is being billed as a year-long celebration begins, questions surround the city's plans for 2017 — from delayed fundraising to the transparency of the organization in charge of the celebrations.

Celebrations Ottawa not subject to access of information laws

Fireworks explode behind Parliament Hill during Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa. Canada's sesquicentennial year is expected to involve year-long celebrations in the city, but the group managing those celebrations is not subject to access to information rules. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Tuesday marks 250 days before the start of Canada's sesquicentennial year, and the City of Ottawa is expected to mark the milestone by unveiling a countdown clock to help residents tick off the minutes until the big party.

But as the buildup to what is being billed as a year-long celebration begins, questions surround the city's plans for 2017 — from delayed fundraising to the transparency of the organization in charge of the celebrations.

"We have a pretty robust governance model," said Guy Laflamme, executive director of the Ottawa 2017 Bureau. "We report to a board of directors composed of officials from the city, from the tourism industry, from the private sector because we will be getting funding from a variety of sources."

However, the minutes of Ottawa 2017's board meetings are not posted, it's not confirmable whether the $20-million fundraising target is being met and the details of the corporate sponsorship — including a reportedly multi-million-dollar deal with CIBC — have been kept secret.

2017 bureau exempt from access laws

It's impossible to learn anything about the Ottawa 2017 Bureau through access to information because the "bureau" is actually a federally incorporated not-for-profit organization called Celebrations Ottawa that is not subject to freedom of information rules.

Almost exactly a year ago, Tourism Ottawa incorporated Celebrations Ottawa.

If there's nothing to hide, then don't hide anything.- Coun. David Chernushenko

Councillors approved allocating $6 million for 2017 events, but they were not specifically asked to approve the incorporation of the 2017 bureau. (After the fact, council approved naming Mayor Jim Watson and councillors Mathieu Fleury and Jean Cloutier to Celebrations Ottawa's board of directors.)

It's not unusual — nor necessarily inappropriate — for a major event to be run by a separate corporate entity.

That was the case with Quebec City's 400th anniversary and, on a much larger scale, the Vancouver Olympics. But those organizations were criticized for lack of transparency.

​"We have been very transparent," insisted Laflamme. "We've never refused any media interviews. And we've been very forthcoming in releasing any information about the cost of our program." 

For example, Moment Factory's multi-media event planned for the Lyon LRT station is to cost $3 million.

However, there's still a lot of secrecy shrouding the 2017 office. The board meetings aren't publicized, nor are the minutes posted online.
Guy Laflamme, the executive director of the Ottawa 2017 Bureau, speaks with CBC Ottawa. (Joanne Chianello, CBC Ottawa)

The agreement between the city and Celebrations Ottawa calls for Laflamme to file updates in the second and fourth quarters to the head of the city's economic development director, Saad Bashir, who also sits on the board of Celebrations Ottawa.

Laflamme told CBC he filed his fourth-quarter update to city staff. According to a city official, the audited fourth-quarter results will go to the board next week, but only reported to councillors "later this year."

Fundraising falling behind?

As well, little information is available on the status of Celebrations Ottawa's fundraising efforts.

According to an August 2015 agreement between the city and Celebrations Ottawa, the city will contribute up to $6 million from mid-2015 to 2017 to the sesquicentennial efforts.

The agreement also calls for Celebrations Ottawa to "secure 100% of external funding ($20 million) by Q4 2015."
CIBC is the only company announced that is sponsoring "all events and programs" for Ottawa 2017. (City of Ottawa)

Did the 2017 folks raise $20 million by the end of last year? In a word, no.

Laflamme insists that his office has agreements in principle with potential partners. But unsigned partnerships are not money in the bank.

Furthermore, it's impossible to verify whether the Ottawa 2017 bureau really raised $20 million because the details of the partnerships will not be made public.

Not only are the amounts of the partnerships unknown, but so are other details. Does CIBC have a veto over what projects or events are ultimately approved? It's impossible to check.

In March 2015, the city put out an official call "to secure three to four companies that would be tied to all events and programs starting in 2015, leading up to the full year celebrations in 2017, and continuing into early 2018."

So far, only CIBC has been announced as a company that is sponsoring "all events and programs."

Public funds should mean public disclosure, says observer

Duff Conacher, of Democracy Watch, points out that it appears the 2017 office is receiving about 20 per cent of its funding from the public. And that means the organization should be subject to the same rules as governments.

"When you have an organization that receives public funding that is significant, and is also serving a public function, then those two things mean that it crosses the line and should be treated as a public organization automatically under government accountability laws," said Conacher.

According to University of Ottawa business and law professor Gilles LeVasseur, there's nothing inherently wrong with an organization like Celebrations Ottawa. But he argues that it's in Ottawa's best interest for the city's 2017 office to be more open.

"You're dealing here with the corporate image of a city," said LeVasseur. "When you're dealing with these types of large projects that may impact the image of the city, the city needs to be informed properly of what goes on ... People are not opposed to these types of contracts, They just want to be informed of what goes on, who's doing what, who are the players.

"They want to be feeling there's that relationship of trust with their city."

Capital ward Coun. David Chernushenko says that as the city enters into more agreements with private entities, the city must ensure that they are as transparent as "purely public" bodies.

"If there's nothing to hide," said the Capital ward councillor, "then don't hide anything."

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

With files from Jean-Sebastien Marier