The village of Klemtu, in northern B.C., hardly stands out among Canada’s ports. With a population of 450, the Aboriginal village doesn’t get many visitors to its makeshift dock. Even so, politicians in Ottawa and Victoria have come to see Klemtu as a key hub in their effort to stimulate the economy. Starting next month, work will begin on a new ferry terminal at a rocky outcrop two kilometres north of the village. The total cost to B.C. and Canadian taxpayers: $25 million. Granted, that’s only one-quarter of what BC Ferries paid in the late 1990s to build the Duke Point terminal in the city of Nanaimo, but that facility came complete with a stretch of four-lane highway and it serves more than one million passengers a year. Klemtu will be used “at most for a few hours once per week,” according to an environmental assessment of the project. Perhaps fittingly, tiny Klemtu sits on the shores of a place called Swindle Island.
Larry Greba of the Kitasoo Development Corp., a company owned by the local band council that pressed for the new terminal, insists the steep price tag will eventually be offset by fuel savings, since a more efficient ferry will service the new terminal. The project also helps a community beset by perpetual recession, he says. “They have had a bastard terminal since 1996, so this will open a huge opportunity for the community.” Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the province says the terminal will benefit other communities in the region and create 150 short-term jobs.
There’s no question isolated parts of northern B.C. need better ferry service. But the sheer scale of the Klemtu terminal suggests that, in the mad rush to spend stimulus money, prudence and common sense have been cast adrift. And a close look at some of the other projects funded under the Conservative government’s sprawling Economic Action Plan signals Klemtu is far from alone.
The stimulus plan, which the government announced in January 2009 under pressure from opposition parties, was meant to put Canadians to work on shovel-ready infrastructure projects. Originally valued at $40 billion over two years, the Finance Department now says the stimulus measures, including contributions from other levels of government, will hit more than $60 billion. But with the economy well into recovery, critics charge the surge of money flowing out of government coffers is not only needless, in many cases it’s been squandered on frivolous projects. And with at least five years of multi-billion-dollar deficits ahead of us, it threatens the long-term health of the economy.
“This represents the largest infrastructure renewal effort in this country in over half a century.” So said Prime Minister Stephen Harper upon the launch of the Economic Action Plan. But as past scandals involving this sort of thing have shown, one man’s infrastructure is another’s boondoggle.
In the early 1990s Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government went on a $6-billion spending spree under the guise of infrastructure, which spiralled into a pork-barrel scheme of epic proportions. In one particularly egregious instance, which would become synonomous with wasteful spending, Ottawa funnelled nearly $1 million to build a bocce ball court in North York. So it’s somewhat surprising the federal government’s action plan website lists at least two bocce ball projects, one of which involves $108,255 in federal money to fix a bocce ball shelter in Woodbridge, Ont.
But bocce is the just the beginning of spending on recreation, culture and tourism projects the Conservative government considers vital infrastructure. A search of the site turns up what could be called Stephen Harper’s Hierarchy of Sports Canadian Taxpayers Care About: one bowling alley, two slo-pitch parks, three cricket pitches, six lawn-bowling clubs, 10 skateboard parks, 17 baseball diamonds, 47 tennis courts, 50 soccer fields, 51 curling rinks and 280 arenas and ice rinks, the latter costing the federal government roughly $120 million. In some cases, money went to Canada’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, where residents might be expected to finance projects themselves: $90,933 for the Leaside Lawn Bowling Club in Toronto, or the $31,533 that went to renovate a field house in Toronto’s tony Rosedale. Some are projects even locals never thought they’d get. For years the Ontario town of Dunnville fought its neighbour Cayuga, roughly 24 km down the road, over which community would get a new arena, since it wasn’t feasible to build two. Now thanks to the stimulus, they both get one.
For those more inclined to exercise their minds, the Harper stimulus plan has earmarked vast sums to arts and culture infrastructure—a move critics say is an attempt to erase some of the self-inflicted political damage incurred when his government cut arts funding in 2008. To help creative types through the recession, Ottawa pledged $25 million through a special endowment for arts and creativity. Another $385,000 went to the Bata Shoe Museum, established by the wealthy Bata family—who have a net worth once estimated at $325 million.
Along the same lines, Ottawa has pumped millions into tourism events like folk festivals, comedy shows, gay-pride events and theatre productions across the country. It handed $500,000 to locomotive-train enthusiasts in southern Ontario and is spending $218,480 to produce a 26-episode TV series on the “sunset country” region of northwestern Ontario. The Calgary Stampede, which calls itself the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” still got $1 million from Ottawa to “increase awareness” and boost the number of “celebrity guests.” In another northern B.C. project, “the world’s largest North Coast First Nation traditional style replica canoe” is being built near Prince Rupert. Along with a dock, the price tag for the canoe is $127,875.