The federal government is spending half a billion dollars to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Confederation – with everything from a cross-country RV tour to a Parliament Hill extravaganza marking the occasion.

The largest share of the money – $300-million – is being delivered by regional development agencies through the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program. The previous Conservative government created that fund to fix up public facilities and for community infrastructure, culture and recreation. It was given a $150-million budget shortly before the 2015 election.

At the time, Liberal MPs called the program a “slush fund” because cheques were quickly handed out before the fall campaign. However, the Trudeau government’s first budget doubled the program’s size. Recipients are required to post black-and-white signs that tout the federal contributions in their facilities until March 31, 2018.

The Canada 150 Fund, run by Canadian Heritage, is spending $180-million on projects ranging from small and local to national cross-country tours.

The expenses include:

  • Two artists from Ottawa – one a former public servant, the other a local businessman with a chain of high-end car washes – were given $155,000 for what they call the “Red Couch Tour.” The artists will carry a red leather sofa from St. John’s to Victoria in an RV and record the thoughts of Canadians while they lounge. (The red couch also makes a trip by plane and train to the North in the spring.) “What we are delivering is a collection of testimonials from Canadians about what Canada means to them,” tour manager Ela Kinowska said. The pair are raising funds for a documentary about the project.
  • The Students on Ice Foundation will pilot an icebreaker with a rotating cast of Canadians on a 150-day voyage from Toronto to Victoria by way of the Northwest Passage. “The idea was to have a project that touched our three coastlines, our three oceans, and really tie this country together,” founder Geoff Green said. The project received $4.8-million from the government, although Mr. Green says the whole trip will cost more than $10-million. Canadians will be able to apply to join for 10-day periods.
  • Mary Walsh, the creator of This Hour Has 22 Minutes on CBC, is one of the organizers of a “Canada 150 Comedy Show” tour (which received $1-million from Ottawa) that she says will spotlight up-and-coming and indigenous voices. The tour of Canadian cities in the fall of 2017 could bring attention to the next Rick Mercer, Ms. Walsh said. “It’s the same with everyone before they break out, they’re always well-known in their own town. We’re going to try to find those people.” Comedian Ron James and author Thomas King are also involved in the project.
  • Vox Pop Labs was awarded $576,500 to create a website called “Project Tessera” to offer Canadians a chance to “reflect on and develop meaningful associations with the myriad interpretations of being Canadian,” said Vox Pop chief executive officer Clifton van der Linden. The firm was also given a non-competitive $326,570 contract last year to create the website for the Liberals’ electoral reform drive.
  • St. Joseph Media got $1.3-million to create a website and app called “Passport 2017,” a database for finding community events. “Users will be rewarded for engagement through a tool offering digital badges for attending events, sharing their experience or posting Passport 2017 content to their social network,” said a contribution agreement released under access to information.

Much of the planning of the 150th celebrations began under Stephen Harper’s government, but the Liberals quickly put their own stamp on it. The Conservatives wanted celebrations to emphasize Canada as “strong, proud and free,” while the Liberals redrew public servants’ marching orders to focus on diversity, reconciliation with indigenous peoples, the environment and youth.

Of the Canada 150 money being handled by Canadian Heritage, $20-million is for major events. Of that, $5-million was spent on New Year’s Eve 2016 celebrations across the country, a department spokesperson said, with $2.5-million alone used for a Parliament Hill party headlined by Call Me Maybe hitmaker Carly Rae Jepsen.

Parks Canada is offering free admission to all domestic and international visitors at national parks and historic sites this year. The department says it has received 1.9 million orders for free passes in the past month. This initiative, plus free admission for youth under the age of 18 starting in 2018, is expected to cost $83.3-million over five years.

The federal government spent $100-million for centennial commemorations in 1967 (about $779-million in today’s dollars), which included the construction of buildings such as the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jan. 04, 2017 9:11PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Jan. 05, 2017 8:04AM EST