New Brunswick

Officials strike upbeat tone for Francophonie Games hours before deadline

On the eve of a provincial government deadline for saving or cancelling the Francophonie Games, there were signs of last-minute jockeying to end the stalemate over the event’s budget.

The province set Jan. 30 as the deadline for saving or cancelling the 2021 event

The Francophonie Games are the largest sporting and cultural event in the French-speaking world. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

On the eve of a provincial government deadline for saving or cancelling the Francophonie Games, there were signs of last-minute jockeying to end the stalemate over the event's budget.

The organizing committee for the games has slashed its projected cost of the event from a high of $130 million to $62 million, Radio-Canada reported.

At the same time, the City of Dieppe offered to increase its contribution, and the federal sports minister said there had been "productive" talks with the province and that she was happy the Higgs government was "making these Games a priority and fulfilling their commitment to host them in 2021."

The flurry of moves came to light as the province scheduled a news conference for Wednesday morning — the deadline it set earlier this month for Ottawa to indicate whether it would increase its contribution to save the event.

Despite the last-minute activity, the prospects for saving the Games remained unclear.

Premier Blaine Higgs said Jan. 24 if Ottawa doesn't change its mind, the 2021 Francophonie Games are dead. (Radio-Canada)

The dramatically lower price tag would still require the province to contribute more than $10 million, the maximum that Premier Blaine Higgs has said he was willing to pay.

Meanwhile, the statement from Sports Minister Kirsty Duncan maintained the federal position that it would only match provincial funding "dollar-for-dollar."

Even so, Duncan's statement struck an upbeat note, saying provincial officials had "finally come to the table to work collaboratively with us to find solutions that reduce the cost of hosting the games and include in-kind contributions."

Minister of Sport Kirsty Duncan struck a positive tone Tuesday about talks with the New Brunswick government. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

That represented a rhetorical shift from last week, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated Ottawa's refusal to pay more than half the cost, prompting Higgs to suggest that cancelling the games was inevitable.

"Given what he said … given what I'm saying, it seems like the outcome is obvious," Higgs told reporters last Thursday.

Soaring price tag

New Brunswick bid to host the Games in 2016, submitting an estimated budget of $17 million based on a minimal template provided by La Francophonie, an international organization of 58 countries and governments with historical ties to the French language.

New Brunswick and Quebec have "participating government" status within La Francophonie.

The Games, open to New Brunswickers and Canadians regardless of the language they speak, would see about 3,000 participants take part in sport and cultural events in Moncton and Dieppe.

When the bid was submitted, the two host cities committed to pay $750,000 each while the federal and provincial governments would split the remainder.

It was revealed last December that, with a business plan including proposed infrastructure costs factored in, the budget had ballooned to $130 million.

The previous Liberal government learned of that figure last spring but concealed it from New Brunswickers through the summer election campaign and its defeat in a Nov. 2 confidence vote in the legislature.

The price tag of the 2021 Francophonie Games jumped from $17 million to $130 million. However, Radio-Canada reported the organizing committee presented a new estimate of $62 million. (CBC)

The new Progressive Conservative government has insisted it will only pay $10 million — the upper range of the province's original commitment — and has not wavered from that position.

Since the new figure was made public, several other possible cost projections have been discussed, but the $62-million proposed by the organizing committee is the lowest yet.

Organizing committee submits new estimate

Radio-Canada reported that the organizing committee sent a letter to the province Monday with that amount, calling it a "potential" cost and asking the province to discuss "creative solutions" to the impasse.

In another letter to the province, Dieppe Mayor Yvon Lapierre said his city would be willing to pay one-third of the cost of any Games spending that would leave a legacy for the municipality.

Dieppe Mayor Yvon Lapierre says the city will increase its contribution, if that funding goes toward legacy projects. (Shane Magee/CBC News)

Lapierre did not set an amount and said the offer was conditional on Ottawa and the province paying the other two-thirds.

Duncan's statement said federal-provincial discussions took place Tuesday and they "give us hope that [the province is] willing to give these Games the support they need and deserve in order to become a reality."

She said she looked forward to "continuing discussions."

The Higgs government's news conference is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday.

With files from Radio-Canada and Jacques Poitras