Big project spending in northern N.B. lags far behind, says opposition

Northern New Brunswick is getting the shaft when it comes to big government spending projects, says the Liberal deputy opposition leader.

René Legacy, who represents the riding of Bathurst West-Beresford, wants to know why of the $542 million of projects in the last fiscal year, only about $37 million was earmarked for the north.

In question period on Tuesday, he said it represented about 6.7 per cent of the total spending in the integrated bilateral agreement between New Brunswick and Ottawa, with the other 93.3 per cent going to the south.

Legacy said the only substantial spending in the north was for the Caraquet arena project, a big $23-million endeavour that will replace three aging recreation buildings and will include an indoor rink with 600 seats, a multi-lane walking track, changing rooms and a canteen.

When this project is taken out of the equation, the spending in the north represents only 1.7 per cent of the total, he said.

"I started looking at projects, and of course you always look at your riding first, and I started noticing there really wasn't a lot for Restigouche, Chaleur, Miramichi, the Acadian Peninsula," he told Brunswick News afterward. "So I just did the math, and only $37 million for the north out of $542 million just seems very off."

Data from Statistics Canada show that in 2023, about 30 per cent of the province's 835,000 population was in the north, including the counties of Kent, Northumberland, Victoria, Madawaska, Restigouche and Gloucester, while 70 per cent was in the south.

The spending list managed by the province's Regional Development Corporation was furnished to the opposition Liberals following main estimates last month.

The Liberals on April 24 had asked for a more detailed, comprehensive list of the spending, and the Progressive Conservatives provided it recently.

Réjean Savoie, minister responsible for the Regional Development Corporation, said in question period he had faith in civil servants who work in the public institution.

Speaking to Brunswick News afterward, he rejected the idea that the Tories were directing the Crown corporation to spend money in southern ridings because they control most of those seats.

The Progressive Conservatives hold the majority of seats - 26 of 49 - but only two, Savoie's in Miramichi Bay-Neguac, and agriculture minister Margaret Johnson's riding of Carleton-Victoria, stretch into northern New Brunswick. The Liberals have most of the seats in the north.

"All the projects are evaluated one by one, and it's not based on geography, it's based on the needs and the benefits, the criteria and viability of projects," Savoie said. "All the projects are evaluated the same way."

Legacy was skeptical. He said when he saw the list, he knew something was wrong.

"You can't get exactly the right number for every region, but there's gotta be a semblance that it's a little fairer."

Although opposition politicians in New Brunswick, both Tory and Liberal, have over the years accused the government in power of using the Regional Development Corporation for political pork-barreling, Legacy made no such accusation.

"I wouldn't go there until I had some proof," the critic said.

"If I were the minister, I would talk to my staff and have a review. Why are we not getting a proper proportion of spending in the north?"

John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner