Amid backlash, Harper plays down expectations for fed help for Quebec NHL arena

SEPT-ILES, Que. – Prime Minister Stephen Harper is playing down expectations that his government will pony up the bulk of the cash needed to build an NHL-sized arena in Quebec City.

In the face of a brewing backlash, the prime minister dropped several hints that Ottawa might not provide all of the estimated $180 million missing to build an arena.

During two stops in Quebec, Harper repeated Monday a message that stressed the limits of any federal funding.

He noted that the private sector must play the primary role in funding pro sports. He also cautioned that any federal money for sports infrastructure would have to be spread fairly across the country.

Harper also pointed out that Quebec City isn’t the only place seeking federal cash for such projects and that he’s received similar requests from both NHL and CFL teams across the country.

And, finally, Harper noted that the country is about to enter a period of fiscal austerity as it battles booming budget deficits.

“We’re all fans of professional sports. We know they’re important to our communities,” Harper said.

“But professional sports are first and foremost the responsibility of the private sector.”

Harper made his remarks in Sept-Iles, Que., and repeated a similar message later Monday in Quebec City.

Speculation of a huge federal contribution has prompted a backlash, even within Harper’s normally disciplined Conservative ranks.

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There have been angry editorials in Western Canada, where existing sports teams in the CFL and NHL are hoping to build venues. The conservative-leaning Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation has also issued a petition titled, “No funding for professional sports projects,” and has called for a freeze on such spending anywhere in the country.

Harper has kept the door open to a federal role in funding such sports infrastructure projects—but he stresses that any such participation would have its limits.

“If there is to be any role for the federal government, first of all that role would have to be equitable across the country (and) treat everyone the same,” he said.

“And it also has to be affordable, recognizing that this country is going to be moving into a period of fiscal restraint.”

Quebec’s provincial and municipal governments have offered to foot more than half of the estimated $400 million bill for a Quebec City arena—but they want Ottawa to pay the rest.

The feds initially sent supportive messages when discussing the project, and some Conservative MPs even appeared in public last week wearing Quebec Nordiques jerseys.

Now, however, Conservative MPs have been saying that the prime minister had no advance knowledge of their hockey-jersey stunt and did not help them plan it.

(With files from Patrice Bergeron in Quebec City)