The new "Canada 150" community infrastructure program has set dramatically different rules depending on the region, meaning renovations for projects such as libraries or war memorials could get funding in some parts of the country but are ineligible in others.
The differences are particularly stark in Quebec, where federal program rules impose a complete ban on applications from the Quebec government or Quebec municipalities.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched the $150-million program on Friday and regional ministers have spent this week announcing details in terms of the type of projects that are eligible and who can apply. Critics say the program appears to be a rushed attempt to place short-term politics ahead of good infrastructure policy.
"It is an election stunt by the Prime Minister, and should be criticized as such," said McGill University engineering professor Saeed Mirza, who specializes in municipal infrastructure. Dr. Mirza said the program goes against all principles for how to develop infrastructure.
The program will be managed by the six federal regional development agencies. A review of the recently posted rules shows a wide discrepancy from region to region, including varying deadlines that kick in as early as June 9 in Southern Ontario. The timelines suggest the government could be in a position to announce winning projects just before the campaign begins for the Oct. 19 federal election.
The rules listed by development agencies covering Western Canada, Ontario and Atlantic Canada all invite municipalities, provincial entities and First Nation band councils to apply.
However, the Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions says only non-profit organizations can apply.
Quebec's rules also say libraries, cultural centres, museums and war memorials are not eligible, while other agencies, such as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, says those types of infrastructure are eligible.
A spokesperson for federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel said this is because of a Quebec law that does not allow Quebec municipalities to enter into agreements with the federal government without the province's permission.
"This program was designed in order to ensure that projects are completed in time to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. Regional Development Agencies can adapt the program to the priorities and needs of their region," said Michele-Jamali Paquette.
Union of Quebec Municipalities spokesperson Patrick Lemieux said the program's rules are "deplorable." While he agreed that Quebec's laws do pose complications, he said Ottawa should be able to work something out with the province rather than simply excluding Quebec municipalities from the program. Mr. Lemieux said Quebec municipalities will be demanding an explanation from Mr. Lebel as to why they have been excluded from Canada 150.
The Conservative government first announced the program in the April 21 budget but did not announce a dollar figure. That could be an indication that the details of the program had not yet been worked out at that time. The budget also announced a separate program with a similar name called the "Canada 150 Fund," which is worth $210-million over four years and will fund "signature initiatives" through Canadian Heritage to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary in 2017.
Opposition parties say the "Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program" appears to be a rushed and poorly thought out attempt to give Conservative MPs an opportunity to make feel-good announcements on the eve of this year's federal election campaign.
"They're making it up as they go along," said Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, who describes the rules as "strange" and predicted the program will end up funding gazebos across the country. The Liberal urban affairs critic said it appears Ottawa is trying to avoid having the Quebec government involved in its infrastructure announcements.
"If they had a real program to announce, they would have announced it in the budget and it would have been fully detailed," he said. "Instead, it's been cobbled together for photo ops ."