Politics

Federal government spending tens of thousands at elite private club

Federal Crown corporations and government departments are spending tens of thousands of dollars each year at Ottawa’s elite Rideau Club.

Crown corporations defend spending on exclusive Rideau Club

Founded in 1865, The Rideau Club is Ottawa's oldest private club. (Rideauclub.ca)

Federal Crown corporations and government departments are spending tens of thousands of dollars each year at Ottawa's elite Rideau Club.

According to documents tabled in the House of Commons, Crown corporations with business mandates topped the list of big spenders. 

Once the place to see and be seen by top Ottawa business leaders and government mandarins, the Rideau Club's popularity declined during Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government as spending by public servants came under more scrutiny.

The pricey private club atop a downtown Ottawa skyscraper is still popular among lobbyists and government relations professionals who often invite MPs to receptions at the Rideau Club on behalf of various industries.

Overall, 14 Crown corporations or departments reported spending at the Rideau Club during the period surveyed. The charges reported topped more than $111,000. Most government departments hadn't spent a cent.

The corporations defend the spending, citing confidentiality and the need to entertain foreign dignitaries and top executives.

But New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen said he was shocked.

"This is one of the most exclusive private clubs in Canada," said Cullen, who has been to the Rideau Club three times since he was first elected in 2004.  "Most Canadians who are just trying to make ends meet would be furious that governments, Liberal and Conservative, allowed their top executives to drop tens of thousands of dollars on an exclusive old boy's club."

Cullen said there are a lot of places in Ottawa to eat.

A $2,500 membership to have lunch

"Most of them don't require a $2,500 a year membership to have lunch. I'm just amazed the elites thought this was OK."

Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose's office was also critical of the spending.

"What we're seeing here is a government that clearly has a spending problem, and these are the kinds of expenses we should be looking at when we have a mounting deficit to get under control," said Saro Khatchadourian, spokesperson for Ambrose.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen says he is 'shocked' the government is spending so much at an elite private club. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The highest spending Crown corporation was the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC), which works to help Canadian exporters win contracts with governments around the world. Since 2014, CCC has spent $52,893, including more than $2,000 a year for a membership for the Crown corporation's president and chief executive officer.

Charges ranged from $32.49 for a meal on Feb. 3 to $10,251 for an event on July 21, 2015.

While the order paper question tabled by Conservative MP Alex Nuttall only asked how much each department or Crown corporation had spent since Nov. 4, 2015 – the date Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power – the CCC included spending that predated the change of government.

Spending 'in line with previous years'

It also made it clear that its spending level at the Rideau Club hadn't suddenly changed under the Liberal government.

"While costs for these expenses vary year to year, these costs are in line with previous years' expenditures," the corporation wrote in its answer.

The corporation defended its Rideau Club spending, saying the costs are comparable to similar restaurants and that CCC's internal auditors and Canada's Auditor General review its hospitality expenses.

It's also a more confidential venue, it said.

Crown corporations defend choosing the Rideau Club, saying it is more confidential for dinners and meetings. (Rideauclub.ca)

"CCC's mandate is to help Canadian companies do business with foreign governments," the Crown corporation wrote in an e-mailed response to questions from CBC News.

"As such, CCC is often called upon to host foreign dignitaries who expect a degree of privacy, confidentiality and security. In these circumstances, CCC's membership at the Rideau Club is an appropriate and economical way to fulfill these obligations."

"CCC uses Rideau Club premises on business occasions which call for commercial confidentiality."

Private rooms needed for meals

The second-highest spender was the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures bank deposits. Between Nov. 4, 2015 and February 2017, it spent $17,017. Outside of membership fees of $2,397 to $2,446 a year for President Michèle Bourque, the most frequent charges were to rent private rooms for meals, ranging from $580.61 to $2,486.

Spokesperson Brad Evenson said the CDIC uses the Rideau Club before its board meetings, which usually take place four times a year in Ottawa.

"Dinners typically include our 11-person board, senior management, and a guest who speaks on financial sector issues. Occasional business lunches are also held in its meeting rooms."

"Given that CDIC's board discusses confidential matters at these functions, a private dining room is required," said Evenson, pointing out that the CDIC's funding comes from premiums assessed on member institutions – not taxpayers.

Evenson said the spending reported in the government's answer to the order paper question was "typical of CDIC's normal course of business."

A sign inside Ottawa's exclusive Rideau Club, where politicians and lobbyists sometimes meet. (CBC)

Export Development Canada (EDC), which helps Canadian businesses develop their exports, came in third at $13,127, including $4,844 in annual membership fees. Charges ranged from $78.30 for meal service to $4,752 for an event.

Phil Taylor, spokesperson for the EDC, said the Rideau Club actually costs less than local restaurants when it is hosting chief executive officers of foreign corporations and foreign government officials or holding stakeholder panels and global export forecast seminars.

EDC says it needs 'confidential environment'

"The reason we don't use local restaurants for events is that there are rarely sufficient AV options and they are generally not big enough to accommodate our needs and most of our functions require a confidential environment — for example, where transactions or business plans are being discussed."

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council had the fourth highest tab at $6,700, which paid for a membership for its president and four dinners.

It cancelled its membership in January.

"The primary purpose of the membership was to host and engage key science community stakeholders from across the country and abroad," said spokesperson Lucy Lai. "These stakeholders included council members, volunteer members of our advisory committee on discovery research and international delegates."

Canada Post's president reported two dinners at the Rideau Club, but unlike other Crown corporations refused to reveal how much was spent.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Thompson

Senior Reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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