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No cash, no signs: Tories made stimulus funds contingent on erecting billboards Add to ...

Millions of dollars in taxpayer stimulus cash doled out by the Harper government was conditional upon project managers putting up federal promotional signs, The Canadian Press has learned.

And the government was so concerned with the placement of "Economic Action Plan" signage that Prime Minister Stephen Harper received briefing notes on the sign count from Canada's top civil servant.

The new information paints a portrait of a government consumed with the ubiquitous messaging associated with infrastructure spending projects.

Eighteen federal departments and agencies - at the behest of the Privy Council Office, which serves the Prime Minister's Office - have been involved for the past year in a weekly tracking exercise detailing where and when every single one of more than 8,500 "Economic Action Plan" signs is installed across Canada.

Mr. Harper has apparently been keeping track.

"Although progress in the installation of signage had been slowed due to seasonal limitations, departments and agencies managed to increase the number of signs erected from 58 per cent to 65 per cent of the total number of signs to be installed," Wayne Wouters, the powerful Clerk of the Privy Council, wrote in a March 8, 2010, memorandum to the Prime Minister.

The "Update on Signage" memo, marked "Secret" and obtained by The Canadian Press under Access to Information, goes on to list the total number of signs - 5,275 - installed to that date. It cites 3,840 more that "have been ordered or are in production."

"Departments have been using alternative methods for signage installation in order to sustain visibility by placing signs in windows, on buildings or employing other temporary measures," Mr. Wouters wrote of the winter conditions.

The signage was so critical, in the government's estimation, that contracts for project funding hold back up to 20 per cent of the federal cash until a "certificate of substantial completion" is filed - including photographic proof of sign installation and, in some cases, Global Positioning System co-ordinates of the sign's exact location.

The conditional contracts applied to all 474 projects under Ottawa's $25-million recreational trails program. Infrastructure Canada did not respond to questions Wednesday on whether other infrastructure programs shared the same conditions.

A Harper spokesman defended the program and the briefing information.

"The 20 per cent is heavily weighted toward project completion," Dimitri Soudas said. "But ultimately, signs for projects under the Economic Action Plan is a sign of transparency and accountability."

"The Privy Council Office briefs the Prime Minister on a multitude of issues. It's what they do."

The Privy Council's sign database, according to access documents, includes the total number of projects that require an "Economic Action Plan" sign, the number of signs already installed, the number of signs remaining to be installed and the number of signs ordered.

PCO also demanded to know the anticipated installation dates for uninstalled signs.

Cathy McCarthy, president of Friends of McNabs Island Society, said her charitable group's trail project on the historic island in Halifax harbour received $73,500 through the stimulus plan, for which it is extremely grateful.

Under the government program announced last year, all trail projects had to be completed by March 31, 2010.

"There was a certificate of completion before our final funds were allocated. We had to sign off saying the sign was up and so on," Ms. McCarthy said.

She noted that the group also had to pay for the $59 "Economic Action Plan" sign and order it from a specified signmaker in Dartmouth, N.S. "There seemed to be a lot of emphasis on signs," she said.

The actual trail project on the uninhabited island was completed in January, which posed a problem.

"The ground was frozen," Ms. McCarthy said. "Obviously we couldn't put up a trail sign at that time."

The federal sign went up - with the help of Nova Scotia provincial employees and a boat from the province's Natural Resources department - in April as soon as the spring thaw allowed.

Terry Norman, the national co-ordinator of the National Trails Coalition which helped oversee distribution of the stimulus money, said the 20 per cent cash withhold was common to all trail projects across Canada. He said the signage stipulation did cause some minor headaches last winter.

"Often what they did was say, well, we'll put [the sign]up in a tree or whatever so we've met that requirement and then when it thaws we'll get it put into the ground properly. That was fine, as long as people made the effort to get their sign done."

GPS co-ordinates were initially required, Mr. Norman noted, "and then Infrastructure Canada said, 'Wow, it's not going to be required because there's just so many of them."'

He noted that McNabs Island signed off on its completion contract Jan. 30, so the 20 per cent hold-back was delivered before the official sign installation in April.

Megan Leslie, New Democrat MP for Halifax, said the McNabs Island sign is a microcosm of a government self-promotion run amok.

"This is McNabs Island in the middle of the flippin' harbour where nobody lives!" Ms. Leslie said.

"I can almost buy the line that we need to communicate with Canadians. But come on, really. The resources that are going into this versus the resources that are going into the (economic) recovery? People need jobs, not signs on McNabs Island in the middle of the harbour in the middle of winter."

Patrick Connor, executive director of the Ontario Trails Council, said the "certificate of substantial completion" was a good accountability measure for the program. Mr. Connor didn't differentiate between having an engineer or builder sign off on the certificate - also part of the process - and ensuring a federal sign was installed.

"It's all about the accountability and the responsibility to be accountable," Mr. Connor said. "In the process that we were given and signed on to with Infrastructure Canada, we required the paper work."

Ms. McCarthy praised the funding program and has no issue with being accountable for the federal largesse.

"It certainly was able to help leverage a lot of funding from the province and elsewhere," she said. "That part of it was very successful."

But the sign, not so much.

"The sign looks a little bit out of place, all alone by itself on McNabs Island. You're walking down the trail and then there's this 'Economic Action Plan' sign," Ms. McCarthy said.

"I think it would have made a lot more sense for the federal government to do what everybody else does. When the trail groups have the funding to build a trail-head kiosk, you have the various funding groups' logos all on display with information about the (trail system)."

As of Wednesday, the lonely federal sign on McNabs Island had disappeared, its whereabouts unknown.

With a report from Dean Beeby

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