MONCTON, N.B. — The premiers of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia say they will apply for federal funding to help protect a vital land corridor linking the two provinces.
But they are also threatening to go to court to force the federal government to pay the project's entire cost, which is now estimated to have ballooned to nearly $700 million.
Facing a Wednesday deadline to qualify for funding under the federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, New Brunswick's Blaine Higgs and Nova Scotia's Tim Houston said their provinces will apply for the $200 million currently offered by Ottawa to strengthen the dike system on the Chignecto Isthmus.
The premiers argue the federal government has a constitutional obligation to pay for the work under its responsibility for regulating interprovincial transportation and communications infrastructure and enterprises. However, Higgs said that while the courts' interpretation of the Constitution is important, it's also critical to respect the funding deadline.
"Getting a legal interpretation, and applying for that directly is a prudent thing to do," he told reporters Tuesday. "It would be prudent for us to go both avenues, one notwithstanding the other."
Houston said his government will file an action with the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal to get Ottawa to pay for the project.
"I don't believe there's disagreement on the significance of it, but I think there's a little bit of difference of opinion on who should pay," he said. "I believe it should be a priority of the federal government."
Higgs said inflation has driven up the price tag — until recently estimated at $400 million — to $650 million. "We'll get further information as the project is defined; I wouldn't be surprised to see it increased further," he said.
Potential works that could increase the final tally include altering existing dikes, rerouting highways and railways and restoring salt marshes.
An engineering study released in 2022 said the project would take 10 years to complete, but it is unclear what impact a court challenge could have on the timeline.
Federal Infrastructure Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the government will study proposals for protecting the isthmus from rising seas and work with the provinces to find a solution. The federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund has a pot of $1 billion, with all provinces vying for a share of the money, he said.
"We're very happy that the provinces will be submitting the project," LeBlanc said, acknowledging the jump in costs since the initial engineering study. "But I've said consistently, and I'll repeat it again, that this is for us a priority project."
Experts have for decades warned that the combination of high tides with a powerful storm up the Bay of Fundy could overwhelm aging dikes and flood large portions of Amherst, N.S., as well as neighbouring Sackville, N.B. Meanwhile, the sea level at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy has been rising at a rate of about 2.4 millimetres a year over the past century as the planet warms.
Vital transportation and utility links could be severed for weeks, affecting Nova Scotia's supply of food, medicine and other essentials if a disaster occurs.
LeBlanc said the federal government is ready to defend against a potential legal challenge. "We will then explain why we don't think it's only a federal responsibility," he said. "Provinces are owners of these assets. But what is important is to work together."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 18, 2023.
— By Hina Alam in Fredericton
The Canadian Press