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Public accounts, transparency, and the Aga Khan Foundation

By Evan Sotiropoulos      

The Canadian federal government has given $235-million over five years to the Aga Khan Foundation. Let's put the money received in the last fiscal year in perspective.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Aga Khan, pictured on May 17, 2016, in Ottawa. Photograph courtesy of the Prime Minister's Office: Adam Scotti
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TORONTO—Some $235,553,238 is a lot of money.

It is the amount of money given by the federal government to the Aga Khan Foundation during the last five fiscal years according to transfer payments in the Public Accounts of Canada.

Each year—in October more often than not—the public accounts, which are the audited financial statements of the federal government, are tabled in the House.

Produced in three volumes (summary report and consolidated financial statements; details of expenses and revenues; and, additional information and analyses), there is a great deal of information contained therein. So it should be; the federal government, after all, had total program expenses (which exclude public debt charges) of more than $287-billion in the last fiscal year.

Each volume is divided into sections (50 in all) with detailed information. The public accounts are published in PDF and HTML formats; in 2017, the combined documents for the former totalled 1,744 pages.

There are many worthwhile stories hidden in plain sight within these pages. Alas, much time and human resources are required to sort through this information overload—two features in short journalistic supply.

Still, the federal government can make changes to foster more efficient analysis of how taxpayer money is being spent. In every ministerial mandate letter issued by the prime minister, there is a promise “to set a higher bar for openness and transparency in government.”

One specific action item consistent with this commitment is to make parts (if not all) of the public accounts accessible in Excel spreadsheets. This way, both financial expenditures—and recipient information—can be more easily identified, sorted, compared, and analyzed, including across fiscal years and, perhaps more tellingly, different political parties.

Slightly more than half of federal expenses are for individual benefits (old age security; guaranteed income supplement; spouse’s allowance) and major transfers to other levels of government (support for health and other social programs; fiscal arrangements). Where additional transparency is especially needed, though, is for transfer payments that take the form of grants and contributions made by the federal government “for which no goods or services are received.”

This brings us to the Aga Khan Foundation and the ethics controversy still swirling around the prime minister after he spent time in 2016 on a private island owned by the Aga Khan. Recall, Justin Trudeau characterized the Aga Khan as a long-time friend, despite having “no personal or private interactions with the Aga Khan and his family between 1983 and April 2013, when he became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, except for his father’s funeral in 2000,” according to the report released five days before Christmas by the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner.

The $235-million over five years and more than $47-million in 2016-2017 alone is not a meaningless allocation of taxpayer money. Let us put the money received by the Aga Khan Foundation just in the last fiscal year in perspective.

It is more money than the federal government provides to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for its Security Investment Program ($34-million) and for NATO’s Civil Administration ($25-million); more than the Green Infrastructure Fund ($45-million); more than the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund ($37-million); more than the Atlantic Innovation Fund ($31-million); more than the Athlete Assistance Program ($28-million); more than to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ($20-million); more than for the Aboriginal Justice Strategy Fund ($14-million); and the list goes on and on.

Liberal MPs on the House of Commons Ethics Committee recently voted down a motion that would have seen Trudeau testify, a move that is inconsistent with the spirit of openness this federal government was elected on, as well as the rhetoric on transparency found in its mandate letters. Buried deep in the Public Accounts, however, are a quarter of a billion reasons why increased transparency will help inform how taxpayer dollars are spent and the relationships that underpin financial allocations.

Aga Khan Foundation Canada

Total amount spent in 2012-2013

Global Peace and Security Fund

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $1,497,374

Contributions for Bilateral Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $25,615,661

Contributions for Partnership Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $5,536,997

Total: $32,650,032

Total amount spent in 2013-2014

Contributions for Bilateral Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $31,232,032

Contributions for Partnership Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $24,014,016

Global Peace and Security Fund

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $846,856

Grants for Multilateral Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $2,000,000

Contributions for Bilateral Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $1,081,139

Total: $59,174,043

Total amount spent in 2014–2015

Contributions for Bilateral Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $21,596,989

Contributions for Partnership with Canadians Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $17,233,939

Grants for Multilateral Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $4,250,000

Total: $43,080,928

Total amount spent in 2015–2016

Contributions—Religious Freedom Fund

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $224,391

Contributions for Bilateral Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $24,963,931

Contributions for Partnership with Canadians Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $25,251,516

Grants for Multilateral Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont: $3,000,000

Total: $53,439,838

Total amount spent in 2016–2017

Contributions for Bilateral Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $27,809,282

Contributions for Partnership with Canadians Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont.: $18,199,115

Grants for Multilateral Programming

Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Ottawa, Ont. $1,200,000

Total: $47,208,397

Grand total: $235,553,238

Evan Sotiropoulos, a Toronto-based writer, has been contributing to The Hill Times since 2006. @evan_sotirop

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