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Battle brewing between feds, Quebec City over hockey arena funding

Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume takes part in a press conference with Quebecor CEO Pierre-Karl Peladeau, not shown, at city hall in Quebec City, Tuesday March 1, 2011. Peladeau and Labeaume discussed the details of Quebecor investment as private partner in a new arena. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Francis Vachon

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Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume takes part in a press conference with Quebecor CEO Pierre-Karl Peladeau, not shown, at city hall in Quebec City, Tuesday March 1, 2011. Peladeau and Labeaume discussed the details of Quebecor investment as private partner in a new arena. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Francis Vachon

QUEBEC - The federal government appeared to firmly slam the door on funding a Quebec City hockey arena, as an angry mayor warned Wednesday of dire political consequences for the Conservatives.

Regis Labeaume, the fiery populist mayor of Quebec City, had been suggesting the Tories were committing political suicide with their lacklustre support of the project.

But his stark prediction, made early Wednesday, came even before the feds distributed a statement in which they backed away from the arena project more emphatically than ever.

Senior officials sent talking points to Tory MPs and senators that did not mention Quebec City by name, but declared that the government had "decided against" creating a sports facility funding program.

One prominent Conservative celebrated the move.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney took to Twitter to share his joy.

"Delighted with today's announcement that the government will NOT create a program to subsidize professional sports arenas," he said in a tweet.

Many of the government's staunchest supporters had been chafing for months at the controversial idea of using federal tax dollars to build a stadium for a non-existent NHL team.

With that uncertainty apparently cleared up, one unanswered question remains: whether Conservatives will continue to feel the same kind of jubilation, on the next election day, as Kenney did Wednesday.

The Tories have been burned once before by an angry populist. That was in Newfoundland by Danny Williams, the feisty premier who helped shut them out in his province in the last provincial election.

Now they've angered an equally popular, and perhaps even more combative, mayor.

Labeaume's remarks in a radio-station interview Wednesday hinted at a brewing political battle. The lion's share of the Tories' 11 Quebec seats are around his city.

Earlier in the day, Labeaume made it clear he won't be easily dissuaded in his quest for the feds to foot part of the $400 million bill.

He was unsparing in his assessment of Josee Verner, the federal minister who announced the previous day that Ottawa could not fund the project without greater private-sector investment.

"I found that response suicidal," Labeaume said in an interview earlier Wednesday with Montreal's 98.5 FM.

"I'd like to believe it was made under duress, I don't know, because it doesn't make any sense."

Facing demands for federal cash, Ottawa had spent months setting private-sector participation as a key condition.

Labeaume felt he had clearly met that condition Tuesday, when he announced a multimillion-dollar deal in which the Quebecor media empire had purchased the rights to manage and name a future arena.

But Verner said the feds weren't satisfied. She cited as an example the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, which received a tiny percentage of federal money but was financed overwhelmingly with private cash.

The Quebec arena, meanwhile, will get built entirely with taxpayers' money at the provincial and local level—unless the feds suddenly get involved.

"At this moment, according to our precedent, this (Quebec) project is essentially financed by the public. There isn't enough private money in that project," Verner said Tuesday.

The government made it even clearer Wednesday that the city should not be holding its breath, waiting for federal cash.

Governmnent officials distributed talking points to caucus members urging them to repeat the three following lines, in an email titled, "Funding for professional sports infrastructure."

The lines are:

—The government has no program to fund professional sports facilities.

—And the government has decided against creating such a program.

—This decision will be applied consistently across the country.

Several other cities that want arenas have been watching closely to see what the federal government does about the Quebec building.

Saskatchewan announced this week that it will have to mothball its project for a football stadium because of an absence of federal money.

One hockey-loving Conservative caucus member brushed aside warnings about electoral damage in Quebec.

"This isn't political suicide," said Sen. Jacques Demers, a former NHL coach, in a scrum with reporters on Parliament Hill.

Demers stressed that Conservatives don't want an election now and, in any event, he said it's impossible to predict political events two weeks away—let alone over a longer time horizon.

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