Ontario is warning it won't be able to participate or match funds for the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program because the federal plan is rushed and will only fund projects that are politically motivated "frills" like gazebos instead of more urgent needs.
Brad Duguid, Ontario's Minister of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure, said the province had no advance notice of the $150-million fund when it was announced on May 15.
"It's going to be difficult for us to put something together in a couple of weeks that has any credibility to it," he said, describing the June 9 deadline for projects in Southern Ontario as "ridiculously short."
He outlined his objections in a letter sent Thursday to federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel and obtained by The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Duguid said the program's requirement that Canada 150 money not go to already planned projects means municipalities must submit infrastructure projects that are not on their priority lists.
"It has the distinct odour of a public relations exercise rather than any kind of reasonable or credible response to our infrastructure needs," he said. "It looks like a glorified gazebo fund to me" – a reference to Treasury Board President Tony Clement's decision to spruce up his riding in 2010 with money from the G8 Legacy Infrastructure Fund.
The Ontario Liberals and federal Conservatives are at odds on a wide range of policy files, and that is intensifying in the run-up to the federal election. The Tories have faced criticism over the Canada 150 program, which is meant to fund small community projects such as arena repairs and bike trails. The fund is worth $150-million over two years and is being run through the six federal regional development agencies, but the criteria and deadlines vary considerably from one region to the next.
Saro Khatchadourian, a spokesman for federal Minister of State Gary Goodyear, who is responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, disputed the suggestion that the deadline will be a problem and questioned the sincerity of Mr. Duguid's complaints.
Mr. Khatchadourian said the demand for similar programs has always exceeded the available money at deadline.
"We expect the Canada 150 program to be no different," he said in an e-mail. "The projects supported through the Canada 150 program will help celebrate our shared heritage, while creating jobs and improving the quality of life for Canadians from coast to coast to coast."
Critics say the program appears to be a rushed attempt to place short-term politics ahead of good infrastructure policy because 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 Union of Quebec Municipalities has said the program's rules, which do not allow municipalities in that province to apply, are "deplorable." A spokesperson for Mr. Lebel said it is because Quebec law does not allow the province's municipalities to enter into agreements with the federal government without the province's permission.
Conservative MPs, meanwhile, have been actively promoting the new program in their local newsletters and in the local media.
The Chatham Daily News quoted Chatham-Kent-Essex MP Dave Van Kesteren stressing that the fund is in addition to existing infrastructure programs.
"This is just kind of a little added bonus for the community," he said, adding that his office was available to help get projects submitted ahead of the deadline.
The federal government introduced the Canada 150 infrastructure program in the April 21 budget but did not announce a dollar figure. The budget also announced a separate program with a similar name, the Canada 150 Fund, which is worth $210-million over four years and will fund "signature initiatives" through Canadian Heritage to celebrate Canada's sesquicentennial in 2017.