A prominent federal Liberal MP came to Chilliwack last week, a rare occurrence in this long-held Conservative electoral district.
Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Francois-Philippe Champagne – who until a recent cabinet shuffle was the Minister of Trade – visited the Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce for lunch on Feb. 13 to talk about his portfolio, the importance of infrastructure to the broader economy and to the well-being of Canadians.
This year is an election year, and the Liberals have been pressed in recent days in the news over the SNC Lavalin controversy involving former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould who has now resigned from cabinet.
Minister Champagne took a number of questions from Chamber of Commerce members and local city councillors, Jason Lum, Chris Kloot and Bud Mercer.
He had very little time in town, but he took a few minutes for a one-on-one interview with The Progress. The following is an edited version of that conversation:
The Progress: This is an election year, you are the second Liberal MP to visit in last three weeks and this is a longstanding Conservative riding. How well is your message going in places like this?
Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne: For me it’s really about the people. I come from rural Canada. I have a lot of ambitions for rural communities across Canada. I chose to come to the Chamber of Commerce in Chilliwack because I think actions speak more than words, to engage with people to listen to them.
When you talk about infrastructure… I never think of infrastructure in political terms because this is about improving the lives of people. This is about what is doing what is right, wastewater, water, highway improvements, because we know it’s not only about moving people and improving their lives: less time in traffic more time at home, but what I heard [at other visits in other communities] is how can you build affordably?
I would see my presence as one wanting to make sure we engage, I’m going to Kamloops, I’m going to Merritt to see an Indigenous training [school]. I was with the University of the Fraser Valley University this morning, as Minister of Infrastructure I have 4,700 projects active in Canada, so there is no community too small, there is no community too distant, there is no community too far for me to be present.
It’s probably a statement to say as well that I care, and we care, and the fact that I’m here engaged with the Chamber of Commerce is really to inform our future decisions when it comes to infrastructure.
The Progress: The highway is a big issue. Most people want it widened. Where does that fall in the level of possibilities? The money is there you said, so we just need the B.C. government to act?
Minister Champagne: First of all, we really rely on local decision-making . It’s not for folks in Ottawa to make decisions about what’s best for the people of Chilliwack or the valley. When you are the Infrastructure Minister and you have projects all across Canada, the first thing you do is listen to the consensus that is built locally.
The second thing is, it’s about a matter of priority. In respect to provincial jurisdiction and the great work we are doing with [provincial Transportation and Infrastructure] Minister [Claire] Trevena, we have an extremely good relationship. When I say that funds have already been allocated to B.C. that is right, but then there needs to be some priority. The onus to identify their projects and prioritize projects in our system is on the province. So I’m happy to report back to Minister Trevena…. but at the end of the day, this is something for the province of B.C. to decide obviously in consultation with the local community.
The Progress: SNC Lavalin. How big of a distraction do you think this be the coming months?
Minister Champagne: I hope it’s not going to be too much. We need to focus on Canadians. This is something we need to provide transparency, answer questions that have been raised. We shouldn’t lose track that as civil servants we are there first and foremost for the people that elected us.
Government is bigger than any single component of it. As I said, I have a lot of respect for my colleague Jody. We have worked together. We need, in parallel, to prove clarity to the questions that have been raised. I don’t think it would be in the Canadian best interest, in the nation’s best interest to lose touch. We are going to focus on delivering for Canadians.
It’s an election year but it is also about governing. This is about governing and we need to continue that whilst at the same time dealing with the issues that have been raised and addressing them appropriately
The Progress: This company must be important to you riding [Saint-Maurice-Champlain], your home province of Quebec. Is SNC Lavalin too big to fail?
Minister Champagne: It’s big to any Canadian. Any job is important. I think that you can respect the rule of law, respecting our democracy while respecting jobs is something that we can do.
I think we should not underestimate the fact that the company is headquartered in Quebec is offering employment to workers and families, about 9,000 across Canada. This is really people who have nothing to do with the allegations that have been raised, those are people like you and me who wake up in the morning and go to work and have nothing to do with these allegations
So for me, we can do very much both at the same time respect the rule of law, respect our principle of democracy how we work and at the same time preserving and focusing on the jobs and the people that work in these great companies in Canada.