The Trudeau government is continuing to hand out money from a $150-million infrastructure program that Liberal MPs once decried as a "slush fund" when the previous Conservative government created it before last year's election.
The Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program provides matching funds for the renovation of community facilities, such as recreation centres, curling rinks and legion halls, and is administered by six regional development agencies. Community organizations in many parts of the country had only weeks to apply for grants of up to $1-million each, and agencies in Western Canada and Southern Ontario were able to get most of their shares of the $150-million out the door before the election was called on Aug. 2, while other regions – such as Quebec – did not get any projects approved.
The Liberals were highly critical of the program when then-prime minister Stephen Harper announced it last summer. Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, now a parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister, rose in the House of Commons on May 25 to criticize the fund during Question Period. "If anyone is actually in charge of this program, could someone please explain why the process is so complicated, why it is so rushed and why the criteria are so flimsy, or will the Prime Minister [Mr. Harper] just admit it is a slush fund for the upcoming campaign?" Mr. Vaughan asked. Liberal MP Judy Sgro also referred to it that day as "Canada's 150 slush fund."
A spokesman for Navdeep Bains, the minister currently responsible for the regional agencies, told The Globe and Mail this week that the program creates opportunities to boost the economy in many communities.
"The issue at the time was the time chosen and the way the rollout was done," said Mr. Bains's spokesman, Philip Proulx. "We did not agree with the way the previous government went forward with this program by imposing a short deadline that could have allowed for some announcements to be made quickly for possible electoral motivations."
Most of the new Canada 150 community infrastructure announcements made since the Oct. 19 election have been in Atlantic Canada, a region where the Liberals now hold every seat and where little money from the fund flowed before last year's election. Seven announcements have been made in the region since late January, including money for an emergency generator at a Fredericton food bank that was unveiled this week.
The regional departments do differ in how they give out money under the fund. The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency said they are reviewing applications on an continuing basis, whereas the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario gave applicants only a few weeks for their submissions and approved almost all of its allotment of money for projects before the election.
The government has also announced projects that were approved before it came into power, but that were not made public at the time. Ten projects totalling $1.8-million were unveiled at a single event in London, Ont., in February. Some of those projects included a clubhouse for a Royal Canadian Legion and improvements to nature trails and city parks.
Twelve projects for various Saskatchewan communities, totalling nearly $800,000, which had been approved under the Conservative government, were announced at the same time in December by Mr. Bains. A press release sent out at the time quotes Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who represents a Regina riding that does not appear to have received any of the winning projects. Most of the winning projects are in the riding of Yorkton-Melville. Its member of Parliament, Conservative Cathay Wagantall, said she was not invited to any announcements.
"To my knowledge, there was no communication from the government to my office regarding these projects, but I'd sure like the Liberals to work alongside the Opposition in this regard," she told The Globe.
Mr. Proulx said that the Saskatchewan announcement was done by news release only and "when an in-person announcement occurs, it is procedure that all local MPs whether from government or opposition be invited to the event."
Also in December, the government announced a grant of about $83,000 for a Hindu centre in Winnipeg that had been previously approved by the Conservative government.
B.C. MP Dianne Watts, the Conservative infrastructure critic, said the Liberals are being hypocritical. "At the time it was set up, there was a significant amount of push-back," she said. "Now, it's a fund that they're very proud to announce projects under."
Quebec MP Matthew Dubé, the NDP's infrastructure critic, said his main concern is how the program was set up in a rush before the election and he hopes any infrastructure funds coming out of the Liberals' first budget next week will be better designed.
"There is a need for those smaller projects. They're not maybe as glorious as large infrastructure projects, but they are important and we all see that in our ridings day to day," Mr. Dubé said.