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Quebec City mayor, Bloc accuse Ottawa of misleading residents on arena funding

Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume takes part in a city hall news conference about a new NHL-calibre arena on March 1, 2011.

FRANCIS VACHON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The mayor of Quebec City has accused the federal government of spending months misleading people in his city and feeding false hopes it might help fund an NHL-style hockey arena.

Regis Labeaume told a local radio station Thursday that Ottawa should have made its position clear on arena funding sooner.

The mayor's relationship with Ottawa could hold political consequences, since Quebec City is key electoral turf and the pugnacious populist is its most commanding presence.

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Mr. Labeaume cruised to re-election with 80 per cent of the vote in 2009.

He said Conservative MPs were wrong to raise hopes over the last year - most notably when they wore vintage Nordiques jerseys at a photo-op in the fall - if they weren't going to come through in the end.

"They have a right not to pay. [But]they should have said it sooner," Mr. Labeaume said in an interview with FM93.

"It's just that what they did, for months, telling us, 'We're waiting for the private sector, we're waiting for the private sector and the business plan,' while putting on Nordiques jerseys - that's what I find wrong."

Mr. Labeaume's city is poised to be an important battleground in the next federal election, with the bulk of the Conservatives' 11 Quebec seats around the provincial capital.

The mayor's words Thursday were sure to displease members of the governing party; his message was virtually identical to one in a press release by the Bloc Québécois, the Tories' opponent for seats in the region.

The Bloc wasted little time testing a possible campaign line with a release titled, "Conservatives dupe the people of Quebec."

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"The Conservatives created expectations and promises, but when it comes time to deliver the goods, they bail," Bloc MP Christiane Gagnon said in the statement.

One prominent pollster sees possible repercussions.

Sylvain Gauthier, vice-president at the Montreal-based polling firm CROP, declined to share details of a soon-to-be-released survey but was unequivocal when asked whether there would be consequences.

"Yes, based on what people in the region are saying," he replied, without offering the numbers of a just-completed poll.

"There will surely be an impact."

However, a Conservative MP for the Quebec City area said he's not worried the decision will cost him his seat. In 2008, Steven Blaney defeated his closest challenger by 20 percentage points.

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Mr. Blaney said residents will appreciate that the government has been consistent on the issue, in Quebec City and across the country.

"We do not fund projects involving professional sports teams," Mr. Blaney told reporters in Ottawa.

"[This]is clear and people like these things to be clear."

The federal government finally put an end Wednesday to speculation it would help foot the $400-million arena bill.

The rebuff came after Mr. Labeaume felt he had met all of Ottawa's conditions for funding the arena, with a multimillion-dollar management deal announced Tuesday with media giant Quebecor.

The feds had set private-sector involvement as a key condition for federal money.

But it has become clear that, if the Quebec arena project does go ahead, it will happen entirely with taxpayers' money at the provincial and local level.

The Conservatives' key spokesperson on the file, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Josée Verner, told the House of Commons on Thursday that the deal with Quebecor was insufficient for federal funding.

Under questioning from the Bloc, Ms. Verner noted that the Quebecor cash would not help build the arena but was merely for management and naming rights.

Construction on the arena is projected to last until 2015. The NHL, meanwhile, is offering no guarantees that it will bring a team to Quebec City if the project goes ahead.

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