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Tory MP justifies Ottawa's decision not to fund Quebec City arena

Conservative Minister Josee Verner answers a question in Ottawa on Feb. 11, 2011. The embattled Quebec City-area Conservative MP is defending Ottawa's decision not to help fund the city's new arena project. Verner says in an open letter Saturday that the federal government had to act responsibly and not be swayed by the emotional debate over the proposed rink.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Accused of teasing the public into thinking federal dollars were coming for a new NHL-calibre arena in Quebec City, a Conservative MP posted a letter defending the federal government's decision not to come through with funding for the project.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Josee Verner wrote the federal government had to act responsibly and could not fall prey to the emotional debate over the proposed rink.

"From the beginning, we clearly stated that the Government of Canada didn't have a program for sports facilities destined for professional use," Ms. Verner wrote in a letter posted on her site on Saturday under the headline "Acting Responsibly."

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Tory MPs in the Quebec City area have been accused of being wishy-washy on the arena project - showing up at a photo-op donning vintage Quebec Nordiques jerseys before backtracking and the government finally putting an end to any possibility of funding this week.

"The debate is undoubtedly an emotional one and we're very conscious of this," Ms. Verner wrote. "But our government has to act in a responsible fashion and make its decisions based on the facts."

Firebrand Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume told a radio station this week that the Tories' lacklustre support of the project was akin to "political suicide".

Most of the Tories' 11 Quebec seats are around the provincial capital, making it integral electoral turf and key to a Conservative majority in a future federal election.

Mr. Labeaume fumed that Ottawa should have made its position clear on arena funding sooner and Conservative MPs were wrong to raise hopes - in particular with the jersey photo-op - if they weren't going to come through in the end.

The Conservatives said this week they couldn't fund the project without more private-sector involvement. The government also said it had "decided against" creating a sports facility funding program.

There were some precedents. In her letter, Ms. Verner cited the MTS Center in Winnipeg, a multi-purpose facility in which the federal government contributed about nine per cent of the total cost of about $134-million. Most of the cost was covered by the private sector.

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"The Quebec City amphitheatre project remains essentially a publicly-financed building," Ms. Verner said. "In this context, the precedent (of Winnipeg) doesn't apply and the federal government has no program to participate in the construction of this building."

Mr. Labeaume initially asked the federal government to pony up $180-million to build an NHL-style hockey arena designed to lure a team to the city. During a February announcement, Quebec City and the province spilt the building cost evenly.

Last week, media giant Quebecor purchased naming and management rights to the new $400-million facility, scheduled to open in 2015. Mr. Labeaume felt he'd met the criteria necessary.

There are no guarantees that the NHL will eventually return to the provincial capital - a key reason for building the rink in the first place.

One pollster told The Canadian Press there were likely to be consequences for Quebec Conservatives stemming from the arena financing debacle.

Still Ms. Verner pointed in her letter to a multitude of projects completed since the Conservatives came to power in 2006. She also added that new arena is part of a larger urban renewal project that will require federal investment.

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"The Government of Canada will be proud to be a partner in the realization of the project," she wrote.

The short open letter was published in Quebec City newspapers and on Ms. Verner's website on Saturday.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Verner said she wouldn't grant any interviews on the topic.

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