Email this articleE-mail this story  Discuss this articleWrite letter to editor  Discuss this articleOrder a classified ad
Handley disappointed with federal plan

Infrastructure fund changes bad news for NWT

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Aug 16/02) - Recent clarifications on the federal infrastructure fund made by Industry Minister Allan Rock are not good news for the NWT.

That's according to Joe Handley, the territorial finance and transportation minister, who says the NWT needs to "go to Minister Rock to get more clarification" on the announcement.

The territory is lobbying for $133 million of the $2 billion fund, money which would be put towards bridges and highways. The proposal is called "Corridors for Canada."

The federal portfolio for the fund was recently shifted from Deputy Minister John Manley to new industry minister Rock. That comes after it was shifted away from former Finance Minister Paul Martin earlier this spring.

In an Aug. 9 announcement, Rock said the fund will emphasize partnerships, and federal money will only finance up to 50 per cent of a specific project.

The NWT had applied for 66 per cent of project costs.

But Handley said the territory won't stand down.

"We still want to make the case that as a territory we're financed differently than our provinces and two-thirds is still fair."

Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce president Dave McPherson said 50 per cent is still better than nothing.

"I'm sure if the federal government came to the GNWT now and said, 'we'll bump up your infrastructure budget by 50 per cent, I think the GNWT would jump at it," he said.

But, he added, "obviously we want to get as much as we can."

Angry at the people count

The new guidelines also make a distinction based on the population for an area. All jurisdictions with a population under 750,000 will draw from the same fund.

"That causes me a bit of concern," said Handley. "We've got a larger territory to provide infrastructure in than most provinces. Going on population doesn't work in our favour."

The inclusion of population is particularly galling to Van Tighem, who said there's a growing movement afoot that recognizes investments in the North can spin off into broader benefits. That theme was the marching anthem of the NWT Coalition when it toured minister's offices in Ottawa this spring. But it doesn't seem to have caught hold inside Rock's office.

Even so, changes to the federal plan could prompt changes to Corridors for Canada. Handley said "it's too early to tell yet," but a coalition of Northern business people and politicians will meet to discuss the plan again later this month.

For example, a request for money for the Mackenzie bridge could be dropped altogether.

"It's hard to speculate on that. You could always do it completely privately, but it might be expensive," said Handley.

The plan has already changed once. The initial proposal was to ask for 100 per cent of funding, said Yellowknife Mayor Gord Van Tighem.

"It's like anything that you start as a concept," said Van Tighem. "As you start to refine it, there's changes that occur. Those that are making applications adapt."

The problem is, there's not much the territory can do.

"You have to recognize the federal government holds the cards on this, and we're responding to them for money that they're allocating through their rules. We have to make a pretty convincing argument," said Handley.

And, said McPherson, there's no guarantee the portfolio won't get bounced around again.

"They (guidelines) will get more convoluted because who knows, three months down the road some other minister may be responsible for this," he said.

In addition, the fund will be split into five sections: highway and railway, local transportation, tourism or urban development, water or sewage and broadband.

Handley said there has not yet been any communication between his office and Rock's about the fund. A meeting will likely happen in September, he said.

The announcement included no indication of when the money will actually be split up.