A man wears a Nordique hat as he visits Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 10, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
MONTREAL - Former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier said Friday he is categorically opposed to sinking federal dollars into a Quebec City arena project he calls a risky financial venture.
In a blog on his website, the Conservative MP takes a firm stance against spending public money on the project, clearly setting himself apart from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of the Quebec Tory caucus.
"I too share the dream of again seeing a professional hockey team come back to play in our region and I sincerely hope that a way will be found to make this dream come true," Bernier writes.
"But dreaming does not make the hard financial reality go away. It’s nice to have dreams, but when you use borrowed money to achieve them and act as if money grows on trees, you may have a brutal awakening. For all these reasons, I cannot in good conscience support this project."
The blog item comes a day after he was coy and careful during a radio interview and two days after he was conspicuous by his absence at a photo op in which most of his fellow Quebec Tories wore vintage Nordiques jerseys.
The proposed $400-million facility to replace Le Colisee is considered a prerequisite for the potential return of NHL hockey following the departure of the Nordiques in 1995.
Many Conservatives have quietly expressed displeasure about funding professional sports facilities, but on his website, Bernier makes his thoughts clear and says the deal makes little financial sense.
Bernier takes direct aim at a feasibility study by Ernst&Young that stated the project would be profitable only if the government footed the bill for renovations and upkeep for the next 40 years.
"The conclusion should rather be that the project is simply not profitable and will constitute a financial burden for taxpayers for decades to come, even in the best scenario," said Bernier, who represents the riding of Beauce southeast of Quebec City.
"That’s why not a single private player has been found to invest in it."
Bernier staunchly opposes public handouts for private enterprise and said he couldn't in good conscience support a project that goes against those ideals.
"I can't travel the country and make speeches about individuals and governments being responsible, about living within our means and reducing government intervention, while refusing to take a clear stand on an issue where these principles squarely come into play," Bernier writes.
He has refused to do interviews or make any more public comments but invited the public to leave their comments on his website.
On Thursday, he told COOL FM 103.5 that no firm decision has been taken by Ottawa and more time is needed to study the project.
He noted the country has a $56-billion deficit and that the Tories need to slash spending. He repeated that on the blog posting.
"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," Bernier wrote.
"We cannot continue to distribute ever larger amounts of money to please everyone and buy social peace, while refusing to face the consequences.
"We cannot ask governments to manage our money in a responsible manner while at the same time demanding that they devote some more money to an irresponsible venture that will benefit us."
Bernier said during the radio interview that if Quebec City gets funding, then other cities will be lining up for their cash and that the handouts could cost up to $1 billion.
The Tories have 11 seats in Quebec and holding on to them is key to achieving their coveted majority in a future election. Most of those seats are in and around Quebec City.
The provincial and municipal governments have already committed to funding half of the $400 million for the new arena.
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume said he's looking for investment from Ottawa similar to the province's commitment—about 45 per cent of the total cost, or roughly $175 million.
Harper has said funding facilities to house professional sports franchises is a possibility.
"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 onecity we're prepared to make to all," Harper said in Saskatchewan on Thursday.