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Elder Walter Cooke holds an eagle feather as he conducts the opening prayer for premiers from across the country and National Aboriginal Organization leaders during a meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., on July 24, 2013. (AARON LYNETT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Elder Walter Cooke holds an eagle feather as he conducts the opening prayer for premiers from across the country and National Aboriginal Organization leaders during a meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., on July 24, 2013. (AARON LYNETT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

At Council of the Federation, premiers take on a crowded agenda Add to ...

The leaders of Canada’s provinces and territiories are facing a lot of common – and very expensive – problems. Hashing out their positions will take up most of their discussion time as they meet this week in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

SKILLS TRAINING

The federal government is currently advertising its new Canada Jobs Grant, which is scheduled to launch next year. But Ottawa’s plan to pay for the training grants involves cutting provincial transfers by $300-million and asking the provinces to find another $300-million in matching funds.

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Provinces – especially Quebec – say training is a provincial responsibility and the existing programs are preferable to an untested grant. Even Alberta, which is frequently cited as having the worst job shortages, is opposed to Ottawa’s plans. The Canadian Jobs Grant program “is quite troubling to us,” Alberta Premier Alison Redford told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. “It has a direct financial impact and in terms of whether or not it helps us develop a more skilled labour market, we don’t think it actually does that.”

Ms. Redford said this concern is commonly shared among her fellow premiers. “The fact that it was unilaterally imposed, that it removes money from existing programs and it doesn’t allow for provinces to have control of the direction of the training and the development of skills in their province is quite troublesome.”

B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s office said any training program “cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The recent federal cabinet shuffle signalled that the Prime Minister has no intention of backing down. He named senior cabinet minister Jason Kenney, one of his cabinet’s strongest communicators, as Minister of Employment and Social Development. His job is to get a deal done with the provinces in short order.

INFRASTRUCTURE

Ontario Premier and conference host Kathleen Wynne wants clear pledges from Ottawa as to what each province can expect when it comes to infrastructure transfers. The extensive damage caused by flooding in Alberta has other premiers, including Ms. Redford and Manitoba’s Greg Selinger, urging Ottawa to step forward with funding for critical infrastructure projects like bridges and dikes.

Mr. Selinger began pushing for investment in disaster mitigation after a devastating 2011 flood struck his province. Flooding in Calgary and Toronto will help spur interest, he said, adding the province has saved itself billions in flood damages with its investments in floodways and other infrastructure.

“There’s no doubt that we all recognize the need to do things to prevent these major events from wiping out homes, communities, infrastructure,” he said.

The federal Conservatives counter that this year’s budget pledged $53.5-billion in infrastructure spending over the next 10 years and details on the spending will come later this year. Critics argue that on an annual basis, the 2013 budget largely maintained the status quo.

Infrastructure is of particular concern in the North, where Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod said new roads, ports, power sources and pipelines are needed to drive growth. “We have a large territory populated by few people, and we really are in dire need of infrastructure for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the high cost of living. It’s becoming prohibitive,” he said.

ENERGY

Momentum is building in favour of a west-to-east oil pipeline. Energy issues are back on the agenda this week at a time of growing concern about the spike in oil transport by rail, particularly in the aftermath of the deadly Lac-Mégantic derailment. Comments by Quebec Premier Pauline Marois will be watched closely, as she has not taken a firm position either for or against the proposed pipeline through her province.

Federal Resources Minister Joe Oliver argues Canada needs pipelines running east, west and south. Ottawa also says the long promised emission regulations for the oil and gas sector will be released this year.

HEALTH CARE

New guidelines aimed at cutting back on the use of pricey X-rays, a bulk-purchasing plan for brand-name drugs and a push for better long-term care are at the heart of a plan to wrestle down health care costs across the country.

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