Ottawa

Auditor sounds sour note over NAC renovation

The National Arts Centre's dramatic renovation has earned lots of applause, but it also garnered at least one bad review — from the office of Canada's auditor general, who's concerned $15 million was allotted to part of the project it was never meant for, without the government's OK.

NAC says it followed rules on $225 million project.

The National Arts Centre's rejuvenation has received rave reviews, but the auditor general's office had one criticism about how money was spent. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

The National Arts Centre's dramatic renovation has earned lots of applause, but it also garnered at least one bad review — from the office of Canada's auditor general, who's concerned $15 million was allotted to part of the project it was never meant for, without the government's OK.

The major facelift of the Ottawa arts institution was divided into two separate projects: a $110.5-million architectural rejuvenation that opened up the brutalist building and re-oriented it toward Elgin Street; and a renewal of the NAC's production spaces and theatres, as well as its lighting and audio systems, at a cost of $114.9 million.

It is very important that controls are put in place, and Crown corporations like the National Arts Centre should have complied with the requirement.- Etienne Matte, principal auditor

In a note on the NAC's financial statements, principal auditor Etienne Matte said money had been moved inappropriately from the production renewal project to the architectural project.

While the overall project came in on budget, Matte said the NAC should have asked for permission before moving the money from one pot to another.

"It is very important that controls are put in place, and Crown corporations like the National Arts Centre should have complied with the requirement," Matte said.

"We see this control as an important oversight mechanism before the corporation can transfer funds from one project to another."

Etienne Matte is a principal auditor with the auditor general's office. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

'An important oversight'

The NAC disagrees with the auditor's conclusion, arguing it followed the rules and no money was moved.

"We obtained all the permissions necessary to move forward with the construction, as we should, and we delivered this beautiful building on time and on budget for Canadians," said Carl Martin, the NAC's communications adviser.

Martin said that's backed up by the NAC's board, lawyers and the comptroller general of Canada.

The NAC argues new lighting in the building's atrium was part of the production project, not the architectural overhaul. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Martin maintained every nickel the NAC spent was properly allotted, and said the $15 million the auditor is pointing to was indeed spent on production costs.

"We are talking about speakers, lighting, projection equipment, things like that," Martin said.

The NAC sought and received approval from the government to transfer $3.8 million from the production budget to the architectural rejuvenation budget, but the auditor general's office said that doesn't account for the $15 million it flagged.  

Principal auditor Etienne Matte says the NAC inappropriately moved $15 million in government funding from one project to another. The NAC's Carl Martin says the move was supported by the board and independent legal counsel. 1:30

Project sped up

According to a briefing note obtained by CBC, the timing of the architectural project was accelerated, with construction tenders going out before all the design work was complete.  

"This project had to be completed in a very tight time frame, and we adopted a fast-track design and construction approach, which is very common," Martin said.

The renovated building officially reopened on July 1, 2017, just in time for the Canada 150 celebrations and a visit from Prince Charles.

Martin said some of the original plans couldn't be completed within the budget and had to be scrapped, including a new electrical substation to boost power to backstage areas, a film projection system and the removal of old electrical conduits.  

Some architectural plans were also abandoned or scaled back, including an elevator in the Fountain Lobby and a green roof.

NAC spokesperson Carl Martin said every nickel was spent according to the rules set out. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Changes common

Martin said these sorts of alterations are common in large projects.

"It's like if anybody decides to renovate their kitchen and they want marble countertops, but once they do the flooring they see they don't have resources."

He said 95 per cent of the planned projects were completed.

"This is a stunning building, and we got done what we wanted to get done," Martin said.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is ultimately responsible for the National Arts Centre. His spokesperson, Simon Ross, said the NAC is responsible for its own spending decisions.

"Canadians expect their money to be well spent and that includes how the NAC manages its funds," Ross said in an email.

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