Harper: Quebec arena funding? Me? Certainement non!

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper backpedaled more furiously away from the growing Quebec arena controversy yesterday, reiterating that the federal government can’t afford to build a new arena, especially when it’d really mean funding new buildings for franchises across Canada:

Harper said Monday he wants to “be clear” about his view on the matter, noting that his government has received “demands for new infrastructure for NHL and CFL teams” from across the country.

“Our position has been clear,” the prime minister said.

“We’re all fans of professional sports. We know they’re important to our communities, but professional sports are first and foremost the responsibility of the private sector, and if there is to be any role for the federal government, first of all, that role would have to be equitable across the country, treat everybody the same. And it also has to be affordable, recognizing that this country is going to be moving into a period of fiscal restraint.”

National Post columnist Don Martin (no, not that one) says that Harper was forced to speak out by an upcoming “caucus meeting tomorrow to face MPs privately blistering with unusually harsh feedback from their ridings, particularly in his party’s Western Canada base.” Martin insists that funding a Quebec arena is unsellable outside of Quebec, and that Harper must reject the idea or face political doom.

Harper didn’t outright slam the door yesterday, though, and the Edmonton Journal’s David Staples floats one way that Harper could provide arena funding without it looking like arena funding: Set up a special “infrastructure fund” that local governments could use for anything from transportation projects to sewer upgrades to (cough, cough, mumble) hockey arenas, and then leave it up to the cities to decide what to spend the money on. A similar federal program in 1993, notes Staples, ended up providing $15 million for adding luxury boxes to the Oilers‘ Rexall Place.

Of course, $15 million is a lot less than the $180 million that Quebec arena backers are demanding. And if the controversy over using stimulus money for stadiums in the U.S. is any precedent, it’s not like Harper would be able to duck the Quebec arena debate entirely. He might be able to fob it off on local Quebec politicians, though, which from his perspective could be just as good.

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