Bernier slams PM pledge to fund arenas

Former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier has come out against Prime Minister Stephen Harper's willingness to use federal dollars to fund sports arenas and stadiums across the country.

Former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier has come out against Prime Minister Stephen Harper's willingness to use federal dollars to fund sports arenas and stadiums across the country.

The Quebec MP has joined other Conservatives, particularly in Western Canada, who are reportedly angry at the proposal. Sources have told CBC News that a caucus revolt could possibly be brewing, with MPs demanding the federal government keep out of the business of professional sports.

Writing on his blog, Bernier said that "the project is simply not profitable and will constitute a financial burden for taxpayers for decades to come, even in the best scenario. That’s why not a single private player has been found to invest in it."

Maxime Bernier says federal funding of arenas is "simply not profitable and will constitute a financial burden for taxpayers for decades to come." ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Bernier said the government is carrying a $56-billion deficit and the priority should be getting back to balanced budgets and "avoid by all means getting involved in risky financial ventures."

"But the fact that we are caught in this unending spiral of spending and debt accumulation is precisely what has brought us in today’s intolerable situation," he wrote.

More cities will seek funding

Bernier said investing in an arena in Quebec City means the government, in the name of fairness, will be forced to spend several times that amount in other cities and regions that also want facilities.

"We cannot continue in this way to pass on to our children the bills for all the projects that we cannot afford to pay ourselves," he wrote.

Conservative MPs from Quebec wore vintage Nordiques jerseys on Wednesday and pledged their support for bringing a new arena to Quebec City, one that could lure an NHL team back to the city. A day later, Harper said he would be willing to consider funding not just for a Quebec arena, but facilities elsewhere in Canada.

"In terms of financing these things going forward, we're going to have to respect the precedents we have had in the past and be sure any treatment we're prepared to make to one city we're prepared to make to all," he said.

Plenty of candidates

Quebec, which was home to the NHL's now-defunct Nordiques until 1995, says it needs about $170 million from Ottawa to fund a new $400-million rink. Regina wants federal cash for a new multipurpose stadium that would house the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders.

And Edmonton is looking to build a new arena for the NHL's Oilers, at a cost of $400 million.

No final decisions on federal funding on the projects have been made, and the government has said communities will have to go through proper application processes to seek money.

Stelmach against idea

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said he's no supporter of public money going toward building stadiums. He told CBC Radio's The House that Alberta gives the federal government billions in equalization payments, and doesn't want to see that used to fund arenas for professional sports teams.

"I know that giving money to this kind of infrastructure in one particular province will definitely create some irritation in Alberta," he said in an interview that will air Saturday morning on CBC Radio One.

Conservatives have spoken out against arena funding in the past. Treasury Board president Stockwell Day told reporters two weeks ago that Quebec City and other cities shouldn't expect any money for arenas, and no caucus discussion on the issue had taken place.

"We've been clear that professional sports teams — including the NHL of which we're all big fans — won't be receiving federal government dollars," Day said at the time.

Good for business

Harper's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, told CBC-TV's Power & Politics Thursday that the openness to fund sports arenas isn't about funding a professional team.

He said arenas and stadiums become places for communities to gather for concerts, children's hockey tournaments and other community events. They draw business to the area, with visitors frequenting nearby restaurants and bars, he said.

Soudas said in many cases, arenas and stadiums across Canada exist but need to be upgraded. The federal government helping in these cases is similar to helping improve roads and other community infrastructure projects.

"Nobody is suggesting funding professional teams," Soudas said.