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Guilbeault’s road funding remarks sent staff scrambling, emails show

Click to play video: 'Federal environment minister ignites uproar over road project funding'
Federal environment minister ignites uproar over road project funding
WATCH - Federal environment minister ignites uproar over road project funding – Feb 14, 2024

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s controversial remarks on federal road funding had “quite the blowback” that sent department staff hunting for information, internal emails reveal.

The emails, obtained by Global News under access to information legislation, show how Infrastructure Canada officials worked to respond after Guilbeault’s Feb. 12 comments that Ottawa would “stop investing in new road infrastructure.”

Guilbeault has since clarified his remarks, but was summoned to appear at the House of Commons transport committee to explain them further. He did so on Thursday.

“Pretty sure we are in line with what he is saying now on it,” one official said on Feb. 14, the day Guilbeault clarified his remarks.

“Quite the blowback.”

Staff hurried to answer media requests

The communications package obtained by Global News contains two days’ worth of emails among staff at Infrastructure Canada – the department responsible for federal public infrastructure policy.

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Between Feb. 14 and 15, the officials contacted several individuals both within and outside the department on how best to respond to media requests on Guilbeault’s comments.

Click to play video: 'Environment minister clarifies feds will continue to fund roads'
Environment minister clarifies feds will continue to fund roads

According to quotes published in the Montreal Gazette, Guilbeault told a crowd in the city on Feb. 12 that Ottawa won’t be funding any projects that “enlarge the road network.”

“The analysis we have done is that the network is perfectly adequate to respond to the needs we have,” he said.

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Two days later in the nation’s capital, Guilbeault said “of course we’re funding roads.”

“We have programs to fund roads, but we have said — and maybe I should have been more specific in the past — is that we don’t have funds for large projects like the Trosième Lien,” he said on Feb. 14.

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Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault speaks to reporters during a winter caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 25. Guilbeault is scheduled to appear before the House of Commons transport committee on Thursday. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Trosième Lien refers to a highway tunnel connecting Quebec City to Lévis.

Throughout Feb. 14, Infrastructure Canada officials were crafting their media response, and had generic language prepared, but were seeking specific examples to include.

“Need to get urgently what we funded on roads this year or last year with some examples,” one staffer wrote.

Officials also reached out to their counterparts in Quebec regarding the Trosième Lien to “cover their bases” given the “high level of regional media interest” in it, and wanting to “get ahead of any potential follow-ups” on the matter.

Eventually, officials reached a proposed response that included details of projects Infrastructure Canada is involved in, as well as its ongoing commitment to help “build up the infrastructure that forms the backbone of our communities.”

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Housing and Infrastructure Minister Sean Fraser and Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez also appeared at the House transport committee on Thursday.

Click to play video: '‘We do build roads,’ Fraser says amid Guilbeault comments'
‘We do build roads,’ Fraser says amid Guilbeault comments

On Feb. 21, MPs on that committee voted to have the trio appear; they met at the request of Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP.

Conservative transport critic Mark Strahl had called Guilbeault’s comments “outrageous,” and was among the signatories of a letter requesting that he explain his comments at the committee.

Liberal MP Chris Bittle, who is parliamentary secretary to Fraser, said he was “surprised” the Bloc and NDP would support “this feigned outrage by the Conservative Party.”

“We saw immediately that the minister of the environment clarified his statements with respect to this. This is not a change in government policy. This has been a government that has provided historic investments in infrastructure, all the while Conservatives voting against,” he said that day.

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“I can appreciate the opposition wanting to try to squeeze some news out of nothing, during a break week, but here we are.”

Click to play video: 'Calgary mayor ‘can’t believe’ Guilbeault’s comments on road infrastructure'
Calgary mayor ‘can’t believe’ Guilbeault’s comments on road infrastructure

Outside of Ottawa, Guilbeault’s comments raised concern among premiers and mayors who use federal funds to improve their networks.

B.C. Premier David Eby said on Feb. 14 that Guilbeault’s comments “made a lot of us very nervous,” while Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said on Feb. 15 that if Ottawa were ever to cut funding for new road projects, it “would literally be terrible for every municipality in this nation.”

“Making that kind of a public statement and not having any rationale behind it is not ministerial,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Doug Ford lashes out over Guilbeault’s controversial road funding remarks: ‘He’s out to lunch’'
Doug Ford lashes out over Guilbeault’s controversial road funding remarks: ‘He’s out to lunch’

Ontario Premier Doug Ford had said he was “gobsmacked” by Guilbeault’s remarks before he clarified them.

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“A federal minister said they won’t invest in new roads or highways. He doesn’t care that you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I do. We’re building roads and highways, with or without a cent from the feds,” Ford said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Feb. 13.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith echoed a similar sentiment on social media.

“Does this minister understand that most Canadians don’t live in downtown Montreal? Most of us can’t just head out the door in the snow and rain and just walk 10km to work each day,” Smith said on Feb. 13.

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