OTTAWA — After shelling out almost half a million dollars for Justin Trudeau to hole up with his 30 ministers at two different luxury resorts, taxpayers will get a break this weekend when the prime minister hosts his third cabinet retreat since taking office last fall.
The two-day retreat, which starts Sunday, is being held at Sudbury's Laurentian University where the ministers will be sharing student dorms.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the media with his cabinet following the Liberal Party cabinet retreat in Kananaskis, Alta., on April 26, 2016. (Photo: Jeff McIntosh/CP)
"We are matching people up and making sure everybody's roommates are all good," said Kate Purchase, Trudeau's communications director.
Keeping costs down does not appear to be the motivation behind the unusual accommodations. It's more about ensuring ministers get out of the Ottawa bubble and don't lose touch with ordinary folks.
"A lot of the reason we're doing these cabinet retreats out and about in Canada is so that cabinet is sort of actively faced with real life in Canada," said Purchase, noting that "lots of kids are going to be going into the dorms a week later."
Retreats in N.B., Alberta cost pretty penny
Still, sharing space in a student residence is likely to make this retreat much cheaper than the previous two.
The first retreat at a swanky seaside resort in New Brunswick last January cost $174,321, according to the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister's Office.
That included $74,429 in hotel rooms, air fare, meals and incidentals for the ministers plus another $99,892 in costs incurred by the PCO related to holding the retreat, such as meeting rooms and audio-visual equipment. The latter figure has been revised upward by almost $25,000 since PCO's first cost estimate last spring.
The second retreat in April, at a luxury mountain resort in Alberta's Kananaskis Country, racked up a total bill of $248,934 — $165,604 in hotel rooms, air fare, meals and incidentals plus $83,330 in additional PCO costs.
"A lot of the reason we're doing these cabinet retreats out and about in Canada is so that cabinet is sort of actively faced with real life in Canada."
The retreats are also intended to be a bonding exercise for what is still a relatively new group of ministers. Sharing a dorm takes that to a new level.
The retreat will be aimed at fostering other good relationships as well, particularly the federal government's relationship with the provinces and territories, indigenous peoples and the United States — what Purchase called "the big three." On the latter, David MacNaughton, Canada's ambassador to Washington, is slated to speak to the ministers.
As for the provinces, ministers will begin preparing for a planned first ministers' meeting in the fall that is supposed to hammer out a national strategy for combating climate change, including putting a price on carbon
Working on federal budget starts
They'll also start work on next year's budget, amid gloomy signs of a stagnant economy. And they'll begin fleshing out the so-called innovation agenda, figuring out how best the government can create jobs and spur growth through strategic investments that will, for instance, attract new technology clusters and spur development of clean energy technology.
As they prepare for what is promising to be a busy, challenging fall, Purchase said ministers will review the government's record thus far in getting its legislation through the House of Commons and Senate.
It's not a particularly pretty record. Critics have blamed Dominic LeBlanc, the government House leader, for an attempt last spring to ram through legislation, poisoning relations with opposition parties and creating a toxic atmosphere in the Commons that reached a new low when Trudeau accidentally elbowed a New Democrat MP.
LeBlanc himself has hinted broadly that he'd like out of the job and to concentrate on being the permanent fisheries minister, a post he took on temporarily in May after Hunter Tootoo resigned from cabinet to go into treatment for alcoholism. Tootoo has since acknowledged he'd been involved in a consensual but inappropriate relationship in the workplace.
However, government insiders say there's no shuffle of ministerial duties in the offing.
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