Politics

Feds will stop investing in 'large' road projects, environment minister says

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Monday the federal government will stop investing in new road infrastructure — a comment that immediately drew attacks from the Opposition Conservatives and some premiers who said the climate activist turned politician is out of touch.

Steven Guilbeault revised his comments after saying Ottawa would stop investing in new road infrastructure

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault arrives for a Liberal cabinet retreat in Montreal
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault arrives for a Liberal cabinet retreat in Montreal on Jan. 21. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Monday the federal government will stop investing in new road infrastructure — a comment that immediately drew attacks from the Opposition Conservatives and some premiers who said the climate activist turned politician is out of touch.

Guilbeault later clarified his remarks, telling reporters Wednesday that he meant to say Ottawa will not put up the cash for "large" road projects.

"Of course we're funding roads. We have programs to fund roads," he said.

Guilbeault said Monday the federal government will be there to support provinces paying for maintenance but Ottawa has decided that existing road infrastructure "is perfectly adequate to respond to the needs we have."

"There will be no more envelopes from the federal government to enlarge the road network," Guilbeault said, according to quotes published in the Montreal Gazette.

"We can very well achieve our goals of economic, social and human development without more enlargement of the road network."

Guilbeault said the federal government is intent on moving people out of their cars and into public transportation, which the government has spent billions to build.

He said the federal government also wants to encourage "active transit," which means getting people to walk and cycle.

The minister said federal money that's been spent on asphalt and concrete for roads in the past is "better invested into projects that will help fight climate change and adapt to its impacts."

No funding for 'large projects'

Pressed by reporters to defend his comments Wednesday, Guilbeault said he should have been "more specific" by stating that the federal government will not be funding "large projects."

He cited Quebec City's long-proposed third link as one project that will not receive funding from Ottawa.

"What we have said, and maybe I should have been more specific, is that we don't have funds for large projects like the '3eme lien' that the CAQ has been trying to do for many years," he said of Quebec's provincial government.

WATCH | Guilbeault faces backlash over road funding comment: 

Environment minister faces backlash over road funding comments

2 months ago
Duration 2:03
After a Quebec newspaper reported that Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said the federal government would stop investing in new road infrastructure, the minister later clarified he was referring to a particularly large project in Quebec City. But the political uproar over the initial comment had already started.

A senior government official told CBC News said "there are no changes to federal policy."

In question period, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government will continue to invest in "infrastructure."

Asked if he'd condemn Guilbeault's assertion that the federal government is getting out of the business of funding some road projects, Trudeau said the minister "clarified" his remarks earlier and the government's "approach to infrastructure continues to be one of investing in the future for Canadians."

Trudeau defended the government's record on infrastructure, saying Ottawa has helped fund the Champlain bridge in Montreal, the planned Gordie Howe bridge in Windsor and the twinning of the Trans-Canada highway in Newfoundland, among other projects.

The government has spent hefty sums on roads in the past.

The "gas tax fund," which was rebranded by the Liberals as the Canada Community-Building Fund, has routinely delivered billions of dollars to provinces and municipalities to support construction and maintenance of highways and local roads and bridges.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said Guilbeault's a "radical" who seems intent on banning federal funds from road projects. 

Conservative MP Mark Strahl, the party's transport critic, said Guilbeault's talk about no more new funding for "large" roads is "outrageous" and an affront to the people who rely on cars to get to and from work.

"This isn't something many Canadians do without. To simply say we're not going to allow any federal money to go into that is extreme, it's divisive and it's right in line with what this government does," Strahl said.

"But we should expect that from a guy who scaled the CN Tower, climbed on top of a premier's house and was led away in handcuffs. That's the kind of extremism that he's about," Strahl said, referring to Guilbeault's past activism, which led to arrests for stunts.

Greenpeace activists Steven Guilbeault, right, 31, and Chris Holden, 23, are led by officials from the CN Tower in Toronto Monday July 16, 2001. Guilbeault and Holden scaled 346 metres (1,136 ft.) on the world's tallest free-standing structure to protest Canada's role in changing the world's climate.
Guilbeault, second from right, scaled the CN Tower in Toronto in 2001 to protest Canada's environmental policies. He was arrested for the stunt. (Aaron Harris/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, a frequent critic of Guilbeault, pounced on the remarks, saying in a social media post that the Montreal cabinet minister doesn't understand that many Canadians live in suburban, rural and remote areas where transit isn't as well-developed.

"Most of us can't just head out the door in the snow and rain and just walk 10 kilometres to work each day," Smith said.

At an unrelated press conference about tourism in Alberta, Smith said Wednesday that Guilbeault is "tone deaf."

"He's losing credibility every single day. I don't know why his caucus and his cabinet is putting up with it — that's something they will have to deal with internally," she said.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is another premier who has had choice words for Guilbeault in the past — he's called Guilbeault "a real piece of work" and an "extremist." Ford said Wednesday he was "gobsmacked" by Guilbeault's latest policy pronouncement.

"A federal minister said they won't invest in new roads or highways," Ford said in a social media post.

"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."

WATCH: Canada aims to phase out sales of gas-powered cars and trucks by 2035: 

Canada's plan to phase out gas-powered car and truck sales by 2035

4 months ago
Duration 2:04
The federal government is laying out its final plan to phase out new, gas-powered passenger vehicles by 2035, with gradually increasing targets for manufacturers to meet.

Guilbeault's comments put into question the future of Ford's promised Highway 413 project, a new highway in the northwest part of the Greater Toronto Area that will connect two major arteries in the area and ease travel between booming areas like Vaughan and Brampton.

Ontario has argued that the project should be fast-tracked because the population growth in these Toronto suburbs demands more infrastructure to ease congestion.

Environmentalists and some local groups have vigorously opposed the 60-kilometre highway because it will cut through farmland and waterways and pave over parts of the province's protected greenbelt.

Lengthy review

In that context, the federal government decided in 2021 that the project should be subjected to Ottawa's impact assessment, which means it will go through a more stringent and lengthy environmental review.

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, which carries out these reviews, reports to Guilbeault.

Late last year, Ford said if Brampton Liberal MPs don't support the project, they risk losing their jobs in the next election because voters there want to see highways like this built.

"Just look at what happened when Highway 413 worked out for the Liberal and NDP candidates right here in Brampton — they all got swept because they didn't agree with 413," he said, referring to his party's victory in the 2022 provincial election.

Mixed record in the courts

Guilbeault has pursued an ambitious climate agenda since taking the job in 2021. He's a keen proponent of the plan to hike the federal carbon tax to discourage the use of fossil fuels like oil and gas and he's the lead minister on the push to green the country's electricity grid.

Guilbeault's clean electricity draft regulations require that the country's grid be net-zero by 2035. That's a tall order for provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan where coal and natural gas are key fuel sources for power generation.

The premiers of those provinces have called the measure an act of jurisdictional overreach on Ottawa's part and have vowed to fight it.

Part of a carbon capture and storage facility is pictured at the Boundary Dam Power Station (background) in Estevan, Sask.
Part of a carbon capture and storage facility is pictured at the Boundary Dam Power Station (background) in Estevan, Sask. The power station is fueled by coal. (Michael Bell/Canadian Press)

The government's climate agenda has a mixed record in the courts.

The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Liberal carbon pricing scheme.

But in a 2023 reference case, the top court found the government's impact assessment bill — which gives Ottawa the authority to review projects like Highway 413 — was largely unconstitutional.

The court said many provisions of Bill C-69 gave Ottawa powers that were too broad and not linked closely enough to what the Constitution calls federal business.

A reference case is not legally binding, but the decision did force Ottawa to consider that ruling when crafting its cap on oil and gas emissions.

As for the government's push to ban single-use plastics by deeming them "toxic," the Federal Court ruled last year that the policy is "unreasonable and unconstitutional."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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