Pens costing $78 each purchased by a Crown corporation lending money to farmers, 5,274 rubber ducks procured by Canada’s cyber security agency and $66 bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar bought by Canada’s small-business bank.

Those were just some of the more interesting items federal organizations bought to promote themselves, documents recently tabled in Parliament show.

Altogether, departments, agencies and crown corporations disclosed more than $6.7 million in spending on promotional items between January 2017 and February 2019, in response to an order paper question by Conservative MP Jamie Schmale.

Much of the spending went toward organization-branded material — such as pens, T-shirts, mugs, lanyards, stickers and notebooks — handed out as knick-knacks at corporate conferences, public events, job fairs and more.

Trinkets also include material targeting children to promote the sciences and space exploration, recruitment for the military and awards or worker appreciation gifts handed out within the public service. Everything from banners, lapel pins and iPads for employee charity draws were found in the 241 pages of documents.

Almost all items were purchased at seemingly reasonable and expected prices, but the list included some notably curious buys — particularly by Canada’s Crown corporations.

Take, for example, 160 pens purchased by Farm Credit Canada (FCC) for $12,555, averaging out to $78.47 per pen.

The self-financed Crown corporation that lends money to farmers spent more than $1.6 million on promo items, by far the most out of any federal organization that disclosed spending details.

The federal entity also purchased 480 pairs of “Ag More Than Ever” socks for more than $10,000, totalling $20 per pair, as well as 50 flashlights that average out to $84.87. It also purchased 1,000 hats for almost $28,000, meaning each article was worth $27.91.

FCC spokesperson Éva Larouche said, “Like any other commercial entity in the competitive financial market, we promote our business.”

“FCC is strategic in the use of promotional items as part of our marketing efforts,” she told iPolitics in an email. “Items are intended for customers and prospective customers and offered to support and strengthen FCC’s customer experience efforts.”

She said items are sometimes donated and used as door prizes and in silent auctions as a way of demonstrating our support of ag-related activities at certain events.

“The majority of Agriculture More Than Ever promotional items ordered are sold for purchase at a cost-recovery or near-cost-recovery basis,” she said. “FCC is deliberate in choosing items that customers can use. Quality, price and usability are all taken into consideration.”

The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), which offers financing and advice to the country’s small businesses, was another federal organization that spent big on promo items, dishing out more than $637,000.

The Crown corporation purchased 39 bottles of Italian-produced olive oil and balsamic vinegar to be handed out as a “client gift,” with each costing $66.

More than $35,000 was spent on golf balls, including 12 BDC-branded balls costing $22.50 each, made for an event. Almost 4,000 BDC journal and pen sets were purchased for $31,000, 1,220 pairs of socks at $10.50 per pair and 9,404 tins of mints were also bought.

BDC spokesperson Jean Philippe Nadeau told iPolitics in an email that “to help Canadian entrepreneurs succeed and grow, we need to be visible to both entrepreneurs and potential partners.”

“We regularly offer promotional items at a variety of events to increase awareness” of BDC’s services and to develop business opportunities and build relationships, he wrote, noting that BDC is a “Crown corporation that is run as a business” and makes profit annually, paying dividends to the Canadian government.

Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said while not all promotional item spending is wasteful, federal entities such as the BDC shouldn’t have to go deep into their pockets to purchase such material.

“If they have a niche and are supported by the government, they’re not subject to market forces the way commercial banks are. Do they need to be doing this sort of thing?” he said.

Wudrick also called the purchase of $78 pens “outrageous.”

“If the per-item amount is way more than the average person wouldn’t find on the internet in five minutes, you’re probably spending too much,” he said.

The second-largest federal spender was the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, which purchased $742,000 in promo items as part of its recruitment and visibility efforts.

Other notable buys:

  • The Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Corporation spent almost $242,000, including 25 umbrellas at $20 each.
  • The Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority bought 750 hockey pucks for $3,400.
  • Canada’s cyber security agency, the Communications Security Establishment, purchased 5,254 rubber ducks for career fairs.
  • Marine Atlantic Inc., which operates ferry services between Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, purchased 665 Irving gas cards worth $48 each for a 2017 spring marketing campaign.
  • Veterans Affairs Canada purchased 100 “Maple Leaf key rings” for $25.25 each.
  • Transport Canada bought 150 pens for $23.73 each, gifted to inspectors during international missions.

Some entities, such as Via Rail, could not disclose their spending details with the time provided by Parliament. Others, such as the Department of Canadian Heritage, declined to disclose their spending amounts based on privacy provisions.

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