MONTREAL - There will be no federal taxpayers' money to build a new NHL-calibre arena for Quebec City until private investors show up to inject some of their own cash into the project, a key cabinet minister said Tuesday.
That clear message from the federal minister responsible for infrastructure spending—Transport Minister Chuck Strahl—provided a twist in the head-scratching saga of Quebec City's quest for a new rink.
Ottawa has been sending vague messages about whether it might provide the $180 million missing for a new rink; there were even contradictory interpretations of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's remarks on the issue.
But Strahl's message was unmistakeable: If Ottawa contributes to the arena, it would only be as a supporting player—not as a primary benefactor.
"It really has to be driven by the private sector and so far that hasn't happened," Strahl told reporters.
"The best way forward for any hockey team is (to) get the private sector involved, let them take the lead on it and let them tell you how they're going to make this work.
"Then other levels of government can say, 'If that's what you're going to do, this is how we can contribute.'"
So far, all the money for the estimated $400-million project has come from local and provincial taxpayers, and there have been calls for Ottawa to provide the rest.
The arena is considered a prerequisite to NHL hockey returning to Quebec City, but is also being described as a key part of the city's bid for the Olympic Winter Games.
But it would be a little premature, Strahl says, to open up the federal purse strings for an as-yet-unsuccessful bid for the 2022 Olympics.
He says you build Olympic facilities after being granted the Games—which was the case for Vancouver—not before.
"It's not a case of, 'If you build it, they will come.' It's a case of, 'What is it you're preparing for,'" Strahl said.
"There's a lot of possibility . . . and I encourage people to think big or dream big. . .
"But my experience on the West Coast on the Olympics is when you win it, you've got a 10-year period to do your investments and if that happens, there will be massive investments."
He said every Olympics winds up requiring new facilities, special transportation corridors, and security measures that governments can later help to fund.
Strahl's comments came just hours after one of his cabinet colleagues raised hopes for federal funding, and one day after the prime minister tried to downplay expectations during a trip to Quebec.
That glimmer of hope for the project came when Christian Paradis—the natural resources minister who is also minister responsible for Quebec—said earlier Tuesday that the door remains open to funding.
Paradis said any such federal funding would need to meet certain conditions: it would have to include other venues across the country, would need to be limited given budget constraints, and would have to serve purposes other than just pro sports.
"We've always left the door open, saying that we would evaluate any project that would be submitted," Paradis told reporters at a global energy conference.
"But one thing is clear: if the project is only about a hockey team or a professional sports team, this is a private matter. It would have to generate tangible benefits for broader things than having only professional sports."
The possibility of federal funding has prompted a considerable backlash—not only in Western Canada, where some cities are also trying to build sports facilities, but also within the Conservative ranks.