Federal government looks to snag corporate sponsors for Ottawa events

OTTAWA – McDonald’s golden arches on Parliament Hill? Tim Hortons billboards at the Governor General’s residence?

Nothing quite so crass is in the works, but a cash-strapped federal agency is actively looking for corporate sponsors to fill gaping holes in its budget.

The National Capital Commission is reviewing a proposal to bring in almost $4.5 million in new sponsorship money over the next five years to promote its cultural jewels in the Ottawa area.

The $69,000 report by consultant TrojanOne Ltd. says the commission could attract corporate cash worth more than a million dollars just to promote Gatineau Park, north of Ottawa, in Quebec.

Sponsors would also pony up money for bicycle events, public-art displays and a Christmas lights festival, says the document.

There’s an “estimated ability to generate cash and value-in-kind resources totalling $4,495,000 by 2018 from sponsorships and partnerships,” said TrojanOne.

A copy of the March 2013 report was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Corporate sponsors are already a key part of the cultural landscape of the capital. The technology firm Alcatel-Lucent is a partner in a seasonal Sunday bicycling event, for example, and American Express supports Winterlude and the Rideau Canal Skateway.

A sound-and-light show projected onto the Parliament Buildings each summer — known as Mosaika — is sponsored by Manulife Financial, which also supports the Christmas Lights Across Canada festival.

This year’s Canada Day shows on Parliament Hill and nearby venues are partly underwritten by the Chicken Farmers of Canada, Loblaws Group of Companies, McDonald’s Canada, Lego Canada and others.

The National Capital Commission, which got into the corporate sponsorship game some three decades ago, is looking for even more private-sector money to keep its programs going.

“A lot of government agencies are looking at new ways of doing business, at ways to reduce our dependency on public funds,” said Sandra Pecek, the commission’s director of communications and public affairs.

Sponsorships have so far earned the NCC than a million dollars annually. But some critics are raising alarms about the creeping corporate takeover of public culture.

“While I have no problem with a corporate sponsorship of special events, concerts and so on, I have real problems with corporate sponsorships of a Crown corporation, a public agency that is supposed to look out for the public good in our nation’s capital,” says Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians.

“What will these corporations get in return for supporting Gatineau Park? … Have hills and landmarks named after them?”

The National Capital Commission, created in 1959, has been radically downsized this year. The federal budget in March announced the arm’s-length body will lose many of its annual cultural events, including Winterlude, Mosaika and the Canada Day shows on Parliament Hill.

The Canadian Heritage Department will take over these programs as of Sept. 30, a move the Harper government says will make the events more nationally focused than they were under the “locally based” commission.

The budget said the change is partly in preparation for national celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

Pecek says the TrojanOne recommendations, which came out before the budget announcement, remain valid for Gatineau Park and so-called “Pathways and Parkways” events, which are staying with the commission.

The public art and Christmas Lights Across Canada programs are headed to Canadian Heritage, which will also be given TrojanOne’s recommendations on sponsorship for those events.

An interdepartmental committee led by Canadian Heritage sets the rules on the use of Parliament Hill, including a ban on advertising: “Use of the grounds for commercial advertising or other activity that could be perceived as commercial activity is prohibited,” says a guidance document.

But Pierre Manoni, spokesman for the department, says that “on an exceptional basis, commercial advertising is permitted to recognize financial sponsors of events organized by a federal department, agency or Crown corporation.”

Manulife Financial’s sponsorship of Mosaika and Christmas Lights earns it a logo and link on the National Capital Commission’s website. Pecek says the company will also be mentioned in the audio track for the sound-and-light show, which starts July 10 this year.

And Manoni says three sponsors — Chicken Farmers of Canada, Loblaws Group of Companies and Manulife Financial — will receive “visibility” during the Canada Day evening show on Parliament Hill this July 1. All the Canada Day sponsors this year have together paid $350,000 in fees.

TrojanOne says sponsorships in all of Canada were worth $1.6 billion in 2011, up by almost $500 million from 2006. The report cites several global success stories, including the Fete des Lumieres in Lyon, France, which brings in $1 million of sponsorship money each year.

The commission’s Sunday Bikedays is potentially worth $180,000 in annual sponsor revenue by 2016, says the study, including $80,000 for corporate naming rights alone.

Barlow, however, cautions against the continued merging of the private and public spheres in Canada’s capital.

“The NCC is the gatekeeper of the (Ottawa) greenbelt and needs to stay in public hands under strict public control,” she said.

MP Pierre Nantel, the NDP’s critic for Canadian Heritage, said his party is not opposed to corporate sponsorships but they must not be allowed to compromise the National Capital Commission’s autonomy.

“Sponsorships should go toward very specific activities,” he said from his Longueuil, Que., riding.