-MP David Wilks admits $32.6 million ‘mistake’ after Revelstoke Mountaineer investigation uncover Parks Canada funding announcement discrepancy
-Wilks (Con.) admits he overstated federal infrastructure funding by $32.6 million
-Several projects announced on July 16 were already complete, and were funded through the 2014 budget. The total amount of the 2014 projects was $54.8 million
-Tips from Revelstoke Mountaineer readers about infrastructure work already completed before the announcement led to our investigation
Kootenay–Columbia MP David Wilks has admitted to a $32.6 million “mistake” after a Revelstoke Mountaineer investigation uncovered multi-million dollar discrepancies in funding announcements he made in Revelstoke on July 16.
That day, MP Wilks joined Oshawa MP Colin Carrie for a press event at the Monashee Lookout in Mount Revelstoke National Park. With local media on hand, and about a dozen other Parks Canada staff and attendees looking on, Wilks unveiled $156.6 million in funding for Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks capital projects, like bridge work, Trans-Canada Highway paving, new avalanche mitigation work, trails work and building upgrades.
It was soon after that residents started questioning details of the announcement. They looked at detailed breakdowns of the projects up for funding, and noted that several of them had already been started in the summer of 2014, some were significantly complete, and at least one — the $3.4 million Woolsey Creek Bridge upgrade in Mount Revelstoke park — had already been completed.
How could a funding announcement made in July of 2015 account for a project started a year earlier? We decided to find out.
At the press conference, the Revelstoke Mountaineer had only one question: “Out of the $156 million dollars announced today, is all of that coming from the new infrastructure funding announced on Nov. 24 of last year, or is it a variety of funds?”
The MP Wilks’s answer to that question was, “Yes.” Why is this question important?
The backstory is this: On November 24, 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a new $2.8 billion federal infrastructure program to support infrastructure improvements to “heritage, tourism, waterway and highway assets located within national historic sites, national parks, and national marine conservation areas across Canada.” It was part of a $5.8 billion federal infrastructure program spread across multiple federal departments.
Then, on March 13 of this year, MP Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Minister Responsible for Parks Canada, announced a $2.6 billion infrastructure investment program as part of that fund.
In Revelstoke, where Parks Canada has a large presence, and the state of the Trans-Canada Highway through Glacier and Mount Revelstoke parks is a major concern, the question was, how much is going to trickle down to here? And how much is going to be spent on the Trans-Canada Highway through the federal parks? Will that including any four-laning or divided highways? (The answer to the latter question is no.)
Earlier in 2015, at a public event in Revelstoke, Wilks said he’d put forward a $5 billion request for highways funding to the 2015 budget. When that didn’t come through, he later referred to the $2.8 billion federal Parks infrastructure program, saying he hoped some would be spent here.
In an election year climate, the funding announcement at Revelstoke is a key component to his re-election bid. This culminated in the $156.6 million announcement on July 16.
However, under scrutiny that included tips from Revelstoke Mountaineer readers, that $156.6 million soon started to unravel.
The Mountaineer sent an information request to Parks Canada, who responded on July 24.
They replied that a total of $54.8 million worth of the $156.6 million of projects announced were in fact projects from the 2014 budget, not the new infrastructure fund.
The projects include:
-A $3.3 million Trans-Canada Highway Bridge upgrade to an Illecillewaet River Bridge
-A $35.2 million paving, guardrail and slope stabilization project on the Trans-Canada in Glacier National Park
-A $12.9 million paving project in Mount Revelstoke National Park.
-A $3.4 million rehabilitation project on the Woolsey Creek Bridge in Mount Revelstoke national park.
That totals $54.8 in 2014 projects.
On July 25, the Revelstoke Mountaineer asked Wilks about the discrepancy. The next day, he replied that he had made a “mistake” in the announcement.
“I made a mistake,” Wilks told the Mountaineer. He listed several of the projects, admitting they were in fact Budget 2014 projects. “So, that’s $32.6 million that was expensed to those projects. So the 2015 announcement should have been $123.4 million, which are the remainder of the projects that you had listed.”
Wilks explained the discrepancy between the $54.8 million originally described by Parks Canada and his figure of $32.6 million by saying the 2014 budget had only partially funded some of the projects, and that the remainder would come out of new infrastructure funding.
Halifax MP Megan Leslie is the NDP Opposition critic for Environment, which includes the Parks portfolio. She was unsurprised by the tactic.
“What we have is the Conservatives having these press conferences to make it look like they’re doing something, when first of all they’re letting the Parks crumble around their very feet, and secondly, they pull bait and switch,” she said. “It’s really disappointing.”
She described years of capital funding shortfalls, saying the new infrastructure funding doesn’t do enough to deal with years of capital funding neglect in the Parks system.
Leslie also questioned Wilks’ apology and personal mea culpa, saying it was clear that the funding announcement — which included a full, multi-page media package in English and French — wasn’t created by Wilks.
She noted that Oshawa MP Colin Carrie travelled to Revelstoke for the announcement, and that he’s the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment. The most senior federal government staff member listed on the media release is Jonathan Lefebvre, a senior communications staffer in the Office of the Minister of the Environment.
“It’s not David Wilks. He’s not doing the [French] translation. I think that’s your first tipoff. This is the Conservative M-O. They fudge the truth to make themselves look good. If it means grabbing numbers from another column? That’s no big deal to them,” Leslie said.
She pointed to past government and media reports noting ongoing infrastructure issues in Parks Canada, which found the Parks system assets needed about $2.7 billion in work.
She said reaching back into past budgets was a new tactic.
“It is a big deal, but it fits in with the way the Conservatives bend the truth generally on any issue,” Leslie said. “They don’t have any moral problems with grabbing a set of numbers from one column and putting them into another.”
In a July 26 interview with David Wilks, the Mountaineer asked about other Parks funding announcements he made in the past weeks, including packages for Yoho and Kootenay parks. He said no similar errors had been made in those announcements.
On July 28, Wilks made pre-emptive announcements of the “mistake” to local media.