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Prime Minister Stephen Harper tours the port of Sept-Iles, Que., on Sept. 13, 2010. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper tours the port of Sept-Iles, Que., on Sept. 13, 2010. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Harper dashes Quebec City's arena funding hopes Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper dashed Quebec City hopes for full public funding to build a professional sports arena that could eventually attract an NHL franchise.

During a speech to more than 200 Conservative Party supporters in Quebec City Monday evening, Mr. Harper explained that in the current period of fiscal restraint this was not the time for Ottawa to take on a responsibility that should be fulfilled mainly by the private sector.

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The Prime Minister didn't close the door to an eventual financial contribution for the construction of a professional-size arena in Quebec City but insisted it would have to be approved on the basis of principles applicable to other Canadian cities making similar demands.

"I know there are more demands for new infrastructure for the NHL and the CFL here and in many other cities across the country," Mr. Harper told the crowd who waited in anticipation for his remarks on the proposed arena project. "My friends, we are all great fans of professional sports. But professional sports are first and foremost the responsibility of the private sector. And if there is a role for the federal government, it must be equitable across the country and also affordable."

The comments drew polite applause but it was a far cry from what many Quebec residents were hoping to get.

Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume was asking Ottawa to invest $175-million into a new arena that one study projected would cost about $400-million.

Mr. Labeaume, in Barcelona, Spain, to promote Quebec's candidacy for the 2016 Universal Forum of Cultures, was unavailable for comment.

Last week, Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced his government would finance 45 per cent of the cost of a new arena and Mr. Labeaume was hoping to receive a similar commitment from Ottawa.

But few people counted on the backlash Quebec City's demands would trigger across the country. The strong reaction was sparked by a photo of Quebec Conservative caucus members, wearing the team sweater of the former NHL Quebec Nordiques, which appeared to signal Ottawa's approval of the project.

Quebec Conservative caucus member Maxime Bernier opposed full public funding for an arena, which many believe would serve the interest of media mogul Pierre-Karl Péladeau, who has expressed interest in attracting an NHL franchise to Quebec City but declined to finance the building of a new arena.

The project has turned into somewhat of an embarrassment for Mr. Harper who tried to walk a political tightrope on Monday in appeasing his base of supporters in Western Canada opposed to Quebec City's demands. He also tried to reassure voters that Ottawa has already spent millions in the region where the vast majority of the Conservative caucus were elected in the 2008 election.

Mr. Harper went on to list many of the hundreds of infrastructure projects his government has funded in the region.

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