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OTTAWA — Manitoba’s sole cabinet minister, Saint Boniface—Saint Vital MP Dan Vandal, is blaming the province for a lag in infrastructure projects, while acknowledging issues with the Liberals’ commercial-rental subsidy, and getting caught off-guard by COVID-19.

"We were not as prepared as we should have been," Vandal said Wednesday, during a virtual chat with the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.

He said western countries need to craft better pandemic plans after the novel coronavirus passes, to avoid repeating the dramatic impact of shutting down their economies.

Loren Remillard, head of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, told Vandal many of the city’s businesses could fold if the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program for small businesses isn’t fixed.

"The need is so pressing, and for so many companies, that will be the determinant as to whether they will be viable post-COVID," Remillard said.

CECRA has Ottawa and the province split the cost of half a business’ monthly rent, if the tenant agrees to pay a quarter and the landlord forgives the rest.

Businesses have told the Free Press eligibility is too narrow for those starting to recover, while others can’t convince their landlords to take up the program.

When asked, Vandal did not have data on the local uptake, and did not say whether Ottawa would flow funds directly to landlords. However, he acknowledged "it hasn’t been 100 per cent" successful.

"We are working closely with the provinces to try to make this program a better program," Vandal said. "The federal government really has no jurisdiction over landlords in this, and we’re working with the province."

On Tuesday, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said he is working with Ottawa to redesign the program to lower "some of the landlord reluctance" and also provide more stability for commercial tenants.

Despite that collaboration, the years of sparring between the Trudeau and Pallister governments has endured the pandemic.

Vandal’s strongest comments came after MCC head Chuck Davidson asked about Manitoba’s perpetual delay in getting projects approved through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP).

Manitoba’s $3-billion fund is shared by both levels of government, for a decade of projects.

ICIP requires projects match one of four quota streams, which Davidson said is a problem when community needs are "not necessarily fitting into all the right slots."

Vandal defended the "hotly debated" process of using streams and requiring provinces to initially approve and prioritize projects before Ottawa approves them.

The Liberal MP said it ensures projects better respond to local needs. "But I think we need to also put the onus on the provinces and the cities, to make sure that they’re doing all they can to bring those projects forward."

He noted none of the $112 million in federal cash allocated for Manitoba’s northern and rural needs has been allocated since the province signed the deal two years ago.

"In my eyes, there is absolutely no reason why this program is 100 per cent unallocated," Vandal said, noting communities such as Churchill are expecting far less tourism.

In response to similar criticism from the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, the Pallister government has said it intends to submit projects to Ottawa by "late spring" and it is in the process of consulting.

Vandal added his government is working on "a post-COVID infrastructure program that’s going to look closely at shovel-ready projects."

The chambers also urged the federal Liberals to direct money to cities, which are losing cash from transit and fees and effectively can’t run deficits. Vandal acknowledged the need. He also said the recovery gives the chance to make Canadian businesses more green, digital and equitable.

Vandal gave the example of "absolutely unacceptable" deaths in long-term care homes, which he said need to pay above the minimum wage.

"Clearly, we have to rebuild our society," he said.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca