CANADA

Feuding over a fair

Calgary and Ottawa-Hull battle for Expo 2005

August 28 1995
CANADA

Feuding over a fair

Calgary and Ottawa-Hull battle for Expo 2005

August 28 1995

Feuding over a fair

canada

Calgary and Ottawa-Hull battle for Expo 2005

Like a parent trying to decide which child to favor, the federal government must choose one of two contending cities for Canada’s bid to the Parisbased Bureau international des expositions (BIE) for the right to host Expo 2005. And whichever it chooses—Calgary or OttawaHull—inescapably there will be hurt feelings and, quite possibly, a heightening of west-east tensions. Not surprisingly, a choice that was expected to be made by March of this year remained in limbo last week. Ottawa was still awaiting a response from Ontario’s recently elected Conservative government about whether it was willing to cover any deficit that might arise out of an Ottawa-Hull bid—and so relieve the federal government of any potential financial responsibility. At one point federal Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy had set a deadline—July 14—for providing such a guarantee. But Prime Minister Jean Chrétien recently extended that indefinitely.

While the federal government fiddles, say Calgarians, their city is being burned. Supporters of the Calgary bid claim that they have already won the race fair and square. As early as February, the Alberta government gave assurances that Ottawa would not be responsible for any shortfalls resulting from a successful Calgary bid. And it was on the basis of that pledge that an independent panel—set up by Dupuy to review the competing bids—recommended last March that the federal government pick Calgary. Any further delay, Calgary supporters now say, will just make it harder for the winning city to compete internationally. “Excuse me, this isn’t a Calgary-Ottawa competition,” said Calgary Mayor AÍ Duerr in an interview last week. “I just implore the government to make a decision so we don’t lose valuable time in the international arena.”

Federal officials insisted last week that they are being careful, not slow, and that there is still plenty of time to name a winner. Certainly, supporters of the Ottawa-Hull bid do not appear to feel Calgary’s sense of urgency. They need time, in fact, to persuade Ontario to provide the federal government with financial assurances similar to those given by Alberta. Ontario Premier Mike Harris’s spokesman, Paul Rhodes, said last week that the matter is “being examined by the very highest levels of government.” But he quickly added that he could not specify when a decision would be made.

While the matter remains in limbo this summer, both camps continue to advance their cause. Ottawa-Hull supporters argue that their Expo would be bigger and better

and, partly because more people live in the immediate vicinity, would attract more visitors—a projected 40 million as opposed to the 12 million visitors expected in Calgary. Supporters of Calgary’s bid claim that their proposal, though more modest, is also more financially secure. Ottawa-Hull has a claim on federal sympathies—a successful Expo bid and the economic activity it generates would go a long way toward compensating for the layoff of 15,000 Ottawa-area civil servants announced earlier this year. Calgary—a city of long memories—counters with a nagging grievance of its own. ‘We had significantly greater job losses as a result of the National Energy Program and destabilized world energy prices in 1982,” said Mayor Duerr last week. “There was just devastation—and no one came to our aid. But we’re stronger for it.” The strained relations are partly the result of disagreement over the mandate of the federal panel appointed by Dupuy. The Calgary organization’s chairman, Jack Perraton, says that “it was our understanding when we went into this process that the panel would render a recommendation and that, all things being equal, [the government] would go with it.” But Ottawa Mayor Jacquelin Holzman—understandably less impressed with the panel’s recommendations—argues instead that the panel’s report was always supposed to be just “one factor in the decision-making process.”

The panel, in any event, recommended that the government choose Calgary principally because it was the only one of the two proposals to meet the essential requirement: an assurance that the federal government would not be liable for any financial losses accruing from Expo. The committee also examined other elements of the competing bids, noting, for example, that Calgary had superior infrastructure, with light-rail transit already servicing its proposed site at the Stampede grounds. On the other hand, the panel observed that Ottawa-Hull planned a larger exhibition on a more attractive site. And, significantly, it found that, had the capital’s bid “passed muster financially, it would have been more likely than that of Calgary to win against international competition.” Ottawa boosters such as Ann MacDiarmid, head of the Ottawa-Hull bid committee, seized on that assessment. MacDiarmid has even asserted that a decision favoring the national capital bid will enable Canada to make a successful pitch for Expo 2005 and “to maintain its position as an important geopolitical power.”

While Ottawa supporters were searching for openings in the panel’s report, the Calgary bid was shaken this spring by controversy over the firmness of Alberta’s financial assurances. Then, in a letter to Dupuy in April, Duerr and Alberta Premier

Ralph Klein reaffirmed their position that the province and the city of Calgary would assume “a proportionate share of responsibility and risk,” and that no contribution would be required from the federal government. But Klein did not use the word “guarantee.” Calgary boosters later argued that Alberta’s assurances were firm enough, stopping short only of offering a careless government promise of a blank cheque.

But ultimately, in late June, Dupuy decided that both contenders should clarify exactly what provincial guarantees they could provide. The demand prompted allegations from Calgary of political interference. Insisting that Calgary had long ago assured Ottawa that it would not incur any costs, Duerr’s office issued a terse press release calling Dupuy’s latest request an “outrage” that potentially signals “another case of the federal government robbing the West of what it has rightfully won.” Ottawa Mayor Holzman last week countered that the Dupuy letter, and Chretien’s decision to extend that deadline to give the new Ontario government more time to examine its options, simply puts the Ottawa-Hull bid on a level playing field. “And once it becomes a level field on that basis,” she maintained, “then OttawaHull’s bid is superior.” The battle continues.