Group calls for investigation into shuttered $34M-research centre

Kayle Neis/Regina Leader-Post Saskatchewan Green Party Leader Naomi Hunter, centre, speaks beside Progressive Conservative Party Leader Rose Buscholl (L) and Saskatchewan Progress Party agent Michael Melby during a joint press conference to call on the Provincial Auditor to conduct an review on Communities of Tomorrow on Monday, February 12, 2024 in Regina.

by Larissa Kurz

Regina Leader-Post

Three unelected Saskatchewan political parties are calling on the provincial auditor to investigate the performance of the former Communities of Tomorrow, a government-industry research incubator that closed doors in 2013.

Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan leader Rose Buscholl, Saskatchewan Green Party leader Naomi Hunter and Mike Melby, acting officer for the Saskatchewan Progress Party, all say that details are suspiciously cloudy around $34 million in startup capital provided to the think-tank, and its performance over 10 years in operation.

“We want to know where the money went,” he said. “At least $34 million of taxpayers’ money was funnelled through Communities of Tomorrow, and what benefit did we receive?”

A formal request was sent to provincial auditor Tara Clemett’s office Monday. The group was still awaiting for a response as of the Leader-Post’s deadline Monday afternoon.

Questions for the auditor’s consideration include where the remainder of CT’s funding and research went after it folded, and why the organization’s online archives has continued to post sporadically about insurance since 2013.

Communities of Tomorrow was established in 2003, a public-private entity given $30 million in public sector funding to support research in sustainable infrastructure development, beginning with “municipal water management best practices,” according to the province.

Federal funding for a National Research Council centre at the University of Regina contributed $10 million. The Western Economic Diversification Canada, provincial government, City of Regina and U of R gave $5 million each.

Melby said the NRC and CT produced several reports naming pre-1980s asbestos cement water pipes as a significant concern in Saskatchewan, helped fund development of the U of R’s Regina Pipe Crawler robot out of its research arm, and operated an Innovation Legacy Fund that provided $15,000 grants to 15 communities.

CT “wound down” operations in 2013, citing a dry-up of funding. The Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA), six months after partnering with CT, said in 2013 it would take over after the centre’s closure in “co-ordinating a $200,000 fund to support innovation” and “host a variety of important documents created by CT” on its site.

Melby said none of these reports, or the pipe inspection robot, can be accounted for now. NRC offices no longer have a footprint at the university, and Communities of Tomorrow is listed as closed.

Hunter called part of the issue “a clear case of public health risk,” given the links between contact with asbestos fibres and cancer.

“When they put Communities of Tomorrow together, they were admitting that this was a clear health concern,” said Hunter. “They knew that there was a problem, they set up a research facility and they did not fix the problem.”

“The centre was supposed to help the City of Regina meet its existing and future infrastructure challenges,” said Buscholl, continuing that Regina “is still breaking record numbers” on asbestos pipes.

The City of Regina reported about half, or 530 kilometres of its water pipes are asbestos cement pipes as of 2022. In 2008, that figure estimated by researchers was closer to two-thirds.

A memo to city council in 2021 said studies showed the pipes “have not reached the extent of deterioration that would release asbestos fibres into drinking water.”

The city’s most recent water quality report, produced in accordance with Saskatchewan Water Agency requirements, said all samples tested returned within regulations, with asbestos fibres at “non-detect” levels in 2022.

Health Canada has also said there is no “consistent, convincing evidence that asbestos ingested through drinking water is harmful to your health.”

Hunter said the coalition, though “rare,” is borne out of agreement that neither the Saskatchewan Party nor the Saskatchewan NDP are willing to press the issue. CT was created under Lorne Calvert’s NDP government, and shuttered under Brad Wall’s Sask. Party government, said Melby.

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“All three of us have put out strong policy on the issue of asbestos cement water pipes in the province of Saskatchewan,” said Hunter.

“We may be competitors on some aspects, but at the same time, when it comes for what’s best for the province, this is something that we can all agree on,” said Buscholl.

A statement offered in response by the provincial government Monday said there is “limited information immediately available” on CT’s operations, “given the time that has passed since this program ended and the number of organizations involved.”

A spokesperson said the province “would need time to review.”

“Should the auditor choose to review this file, we would comply fully with that work,” read the emailed statement.