OTTAWA — The federal finance minister is taking heat after making a flippant reference to Winnipeg and an indigenous "quota system" deciding major projects.
Testifying at the Senate finance committee Thursday, Bill Morneau, a former Toronto banker, promised projects undertaken by a proposed infrastructure bank wouldn’t be subjected to the whims of political relocations. He gave the example of an electric rail line planned for Montreal.
"Let’s say that we decided that, oops, we now want to put this project in Winnipeg. Do you think the investors would stay on board?" he said. "We can’t, all of a sudden, then break that contract and say, ‘We’re moving it from Montreal to Winnipeg.’ It would be absurd."
While the minister says he was just giving a random example, Morneau’s tone put his opponents on edge.
NDP MP Daniel Blaikie said it’s reminiscent of the 1986 Mulroney government’s decision to move CF-18 maintenance from Winnipeg to Montreal. "It doesn’t make you trust, in any way, what is essentially a high-finance Toronto type as our minister of finance."
The Elmwood-Transcona MP drew a comparison to a Liberal bill passed last year that loosened Air Canada’s rules on keeping maintenance crews in three areas, including Manitoba, at the same time the government extended funding to Bombardier.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre accused Morneau of being "very dismissive of Manitobans" in his tone. "He was almost incredulous at the thought that an investor might want to place an investment in Winnipeg."
The minister’s spokeswoman, Annie Donolo, said Morneau has visited Winnipeg four times since his October 2015 election, including "to tout the incredible strength of the agri-food sector in Manitoba," which was highlighted in this spring’s budget.
"The minister used a hypothetical example to illustrate risk and contract law. The cities were chosen at random, and one shouldn’t read more into it than that. To do so is a complete misrepresentation of what was said," Donolo wrote.
Yet Morneau also caused even more of a stir when B.C. Sen. Richard Neufeld asked whether indigenous Canadians would help lead the bank. Morneau said he wanted indigenous people included, but that there wouldn’t be "a quota system… because that could unnecessarily restrict our ability to attract the requisite expertise."
A somewhat flustered Neufeld responded: "I’m sure, in the First Nations community, you will find someone with all those qualifications. To infer you may not, I don’t like that. I can give you some names."
Blaikie noted that an infrastructure bank would deal with many on-reserve projects. He said Morneau should’ve focused on indigenous leadership, but "instead he reverted immediately to talking about quotas."
Both opponents took aim at the government, saying foreigners could be on the board and claimed that taxpayers would assume more risk than profits from that arrangement.
"It’s obviously going to benefit big-city elites at the expense of those of us from smaller cities and municipalities," said Poilievre, while Blaikie called it "an Old Boys club of the international corporate elite."