Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna says her top priority as the country's new infrastructure minister is to get projects built quickly.
The Liberal government has committed more than $180 billion over 12 years to improving roads, bridges, public transit and other needed infrastructure across Canada, but it has been criticized for failing to get the money out the door and shovels in the ground.
Among the priorities she announced during her campaign was a revitalization of Ottawa’s Prince of Wales bridge for use by pedestrians and cyclists. At that time, she used the recently opened Flora footbridge, which crosses the Rideau Canal, as proof of her ability to get projects finished.
McKenna, in her first speech since being named to the job last week, told municipal leaders Wednesday that accelerating the pace of projects is the first of three main priorities as she settles into her new role.
"Let me just be clear about my priorities," she told the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. "One: My first priority is getting things built quickly that matter to the lives of Canadians."
McKenna underscored her point by donning a white hard hat, emblazoned with the government of Canada logo.
"I look forward to working with all of you to get to work to building a better Canada for all Canadians all across this great country."
McKenna said getting projects off the ground quickly will require all levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal – to work together.
"We're all partners in this. It's our job, everyone in this room, to ensure that all orders of government work for people. Otherwise, we'll see the continued erosion of the faith of Canadians in all of us."
McKenna's tone was much more conciliatory than that of the Liberal platform in the recent election. It took a hard line on what the Liberals claimed was provincial foot-dragging on identifying priority infrastructure projects that are eligible for federal funding. And it warned that a re-elected Liberal government would take matters into its own hands if necessary.
"Some provinces are playing political games – delaying project approvals and putting good jobs and our quality of life at risk," the platform asserted.
It vowed that a re-elected Liberal government would require all provinces and territories to identify and approve their long-term infrastructure priorities within two years. Federal infrastructure funding that hasn't been designated for specific projects by the end of 2021 would be given directly to municipalities, through a top-up of the federal gas-tax fund, to spend on projects they choose.
McKenna made it clear Wednesday that such a measure would be a last resort, repeatedly emphasizing the need for collaboration and co-operation among all levels of government.
"I'm very confident that we can get things done," she said after her speech. "My commitment is to get things built but to do it collaboratively."
Among her other top priorities, McKenna told municipal leaders she wants to ensure the benefits of infrastructure investments are distributed fairly across the country, including in rural and remote areas, where she cited the example of federal funding to help provide high-speed internet service.
McKenna, environment minister throughout the Trudeau government's first mandate, said she also wants to ensure investments are made in projects that will help communities combat climate change and become more resilient in the face of increasing floods, wildfires and extreme weather events.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh spoke to municipal leaders earlier Wednesday. He announced that he has appointed rookie MP Taylor Bachrach, a former mayor of Smithers, B.C., as his party's infrastructure critic.
"As a former mayor for a rural community, Taylor understands first-hand the struggles municipalities are faced with in delivering for their residents," Singh said in a statement later.
– With files from OBJ staff