It is not spelled out in the Constitution Act, 1867 or 1982, but the impulse to centralize in Ottawa now apparently includes responsibility for the provision of professional hockey arenas. Conservative MPs and ministers from Quebec, a province that normally jealously guards against federal intrusions, are pushing for a massive $180-million cash infusion by Ottawa to construct a new hockey arena in Quebec City, in the hope of reviving the NHL Nordiques. It is a strange turn for members of a Conservative government seeking to cut public spending to rein in the deficit, and philosophically resistant to federal intrusions into areas best left to other levels of government, or the private sector.
It is also a highly risky political calculation. Most of the 11 Tory seats in Quebec are ridings that would form the audience for a revived Nordiques, and there may well be some political payoff in that province. But what of the other cities that want to upgrade major arenas, such as Edmonton and Hamilton? Regina is also looking for money for a new home for the CFL's Saskatchewan Rough Riders. Whatever the gains in Quebec, the Conservative government would pay dearly for ignoring these cities, while making a one-off $180-million grant for a new Colisée. Consequently, the Tories may feel compelled to spend hundreds of millions more on other sports facilities in other cities.
But this too would present risks. In 2000, the then-Liberal federal government looked for ways to help keep the Ottawa Senators afloat. Given that other NHL franchises were also struggling, it was decided the program would have to be made national, and John Manley, the industry minister, announced an aid package for Canadian NHL teams. A furious public backlash forced the government to climb down within days.
The Quebec City arena proposal is remarkable for the absence of private money. So far, the province has agreed to pay $175-million of the $400-million construction bill, and the city another $50-million. It's hoped Ottawa would pay the rest. It would not be the first time the federal government has provided assistance for a professional hockey arena. The Liberals used $8-million in federal infrastructure money in 1994 to help renovate the Saddledome in Calgary. Ottawa paid $1.5-million toward preliminary work on a proposed Winnipeg arena in 1995. But these are minuscule amounts by comparison. Such a move now, involving so much money, could seriously damage the government's reputation for fiscal stewardship.