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Phil Rose-Donahoe is photographed at the Link community hub in Sutton, Ontario Friday June 19/2015. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)
Phil Rose-Donahoe is photographed at the Link community hub in Sutton, Ontario Friday June 19/2015. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

Federal infrastructure fund spending favoured Conservative ridings Add to ...

A federal infrastructure fund aimed at fixing up arenas and community centres was spent disproportionately in ridings represented by Conservative MPs, a Globe and Mail analysis shows, as the governing Tories prepare to roll out a nearly identical fund in the months before the fall election.

Ridings that elected Conservative members of Parliament in 2011 received, on average, 48 per cent more money from the $150-million Community Infrastructure Improvement Fund than ridings that elected opposition MPs, a Globe tally of more than 1,600 projects across Canada shows.

Under the program, on average, Conservative ridings received $561,332 and had six projects funded. Opposition ridings, on average, received $379,337 and had four projects.

Some of the most-funded ridings in each region are held by cabinet ministers, including Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel in Quebec, associate minister of Defence Julian Fantino in Ontario and Health Minister Rona Ambrose in Alberta.

And a new program with nearly identical terms, along with another major infrastructure fund, is scheduled to provide a new volley of funding announcements from government MPs in communities across the country in the weeks before the Oct. 19 vote.

A Globe and Mail analysis of Community Infrastructure Improvement Fund projects found that they were most often delivered in ridings that elected Conservatives in the 2011 election. A list of more than 1,600 projects was compiled from disclosure notices on government websites and news releases, as agencies did not provide lists when contacted. Locations of those projects were then matched with their federal ridings and party affiliations.

Along with almost every one of those projects came a government announcement, where MPs had the opportunity to hand out big cheques to community leaders and get favourable coverage in local media.

George Szanto, who helped write a successful CIIF application for a community kitchen on Vancouver Island, said he was told to keep the grant secret for more than a year until the government had a chance to announce it.

“It was very odd because the board of trustees knew where the money was coming from, but they weren’t allowed to tell anybody,” Mr. Szanto said.

Gabriola Commons, on Gabriola Island near Nanaimo, B.C., was given $35,000 from the CIIF in the spring of 2013. The funding was finally announced in September, 2014, by Conservative MP Cathy McLeod, along with a few other projects. Jean Crowder, the NDP MP for Nanaimo-Cowichan who represents the area, said she is not invited to such funding announcements, even in her own riding.

“I usually find out about [infrastructure projects] when I read about it in the local newspapers,” Ms. Crowder said. “Occasionally, someone will actually call me from the community and invite me to come, but I never get invites from government, ever.”

Infrastructure is shaping up to be an important issue in the fall election, with all parties introducing plans for how to spend federal money ahead of a campaign that is expected to focus heavily on issues such as traffic congestion and public transit.

The Conservatives introduced a new fund for public transit in the April budget, and the federal government is set to unroll a series of announcements over the summer for winning projects under the $14-billion New Building Canada Fund. At the same time, they also launched a fund aimed at smaller projects to celebrate Canada’s upcoming 150th anniversary – with terms nearly identical to the former CIIF program.

The Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program, like its predecessor, is split between regional agencies and will deliver $150-million over two years to community halls, sports arenas, theatres and other centres.

“The Community Infrastructure Improvement Fund was a tremendously successful program,” said Michele-Jamali Paquette, director of communications for Mr. Lebel, the Infrastructure Minister. “We believe that improving Canada’s community infrastructure is a great way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our country.”

The new fund has a tight timeline and gave organizations and municipalities only weeks to submit applications. For example, in Ontario, submissions were due less than a month after the program was announced. Projects, too, must be completed within two years. While deadlines vary by agencies, generally most give funding to work done between the spring of 2016 and the spring of 2018.

One of the dangers of rushed deadlines is that projects might not be finished in time, allowing the government to make a funding announcement without having to hand over the money if the timeline isn’t made.

The Town of Georgina, Ont., in York region, received approval for $990,000 from the CIIF to convert a decommissioned school into a community hub, which would include a kitchen and employment training.

But the town ran into difficulties, and interior work on the centre continued past the March 31, 2014, deadline. In the end, the municipality received only $70,000, with town coffers making up the difference.

The town has since applied for the new Canada 150 infrastructure fund, in partnership with the Ontario Water Centre, for $340,000 for exterior improvement to the community hub and work on a nearby farm.

“We’re very happily surprised that there’s new infrastructure dollars,” said Phil Rose-Donahoe, Georgina’s manager of cultural services.

Winning projects for the new fund are expected to be announced later this year, according to regional agencies.

With a report from Bill Curry and research by Michael Pereira

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The fund

The Community Infrastructure Improvement Fund was announced in the 2012 budget and, over two years, delivered partial funding to more than 1,600 programs across the country, in amounts ranging from $250 to $1-million. Five regional agencies administered the funds, across the territories, western provinces, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic region. Matching contributions were necessary and came from cities, non-profit organizations and donors.

Most money in the fund went to rural communities, which tend to vote Conservative.

“Basically what it is is getting into people’s faces with the federal government’s investments,” said Darrell Bricker, Global CEO of polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs.

Mr. Bricker said these kinds of infrastructure projects fit with the profile of the base of Conservative voters, who are more likely to be male, like sports and live in suburbs or small towns.

“That the Tories would be doing curling rinks and hockey rinks rather than ballet studios speaks to their voters,” he said.

Aside from the national picture, there are some areas in which opposition ridings did get more funding. In Prince Edward Island, where Egmont, represented by Conservative cabinet minister Gail Shea, got the highest number of projects of any one riding in Canada, the three other Liberal-held seats got more money. And among Quebec’s 75 seats, a handful of NDP and Bloc seats are among the most-funded across the country – though the five Conservative ridings received between them 39 per cent of all CIIF funding for the region.

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