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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.

A proposal to save millions by working together to buy prescription drugs in bulk and cut back on the use of X-rays is the lead health-care item on the agenda. The plan is spearheaded by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz. Provinces face rising health-care costs at a time when years of annual 6-per-cent increases in federal health transfers will be replaced with increases tied to economic growth starting in 2017-18.

Any co-operation between provinces on health care will take place without Quebec. The Marois government announced earlier this year that it would not be participating in the provincial co-operation plans.

CYBERBULLYING

Western premiers put cyberbullying on their agenda when they met last month and policy options to help young Canadians will now be discussed nationally. The B.C. government launched a website at erasebullying.ca to help parents and kids who may be dealing with bullying.

Manitoba has pushed forward an anti-bullying law, one that would, for instance, specifically protect gay-straight alliances.

“We think every child in school should be respected,” said Mr. Selinger, the Manitoba premier.

The law saw pushback from former federal Public Safety minister Vic Toews, who said it threatened religious freedom. Mr. Toews has since retired, and Mr. Selinger believes the federal government is interested in pushing forward on preventing bullying. “I think they’re showing more interest in it. We’ll have a good discussion on it here. I know the provinces have shown great interest in it here,” he said.

NOT ON THE AGENDA, BUT EXPECTED TO BE DISCUSSED:

EMPLOYMENT INSURANCE

Federal changes introduced last year for EI programs are top of mind to Atlantic Canada, and some premiers will raise the issue during meetings. Critics in Atlantic Canada and Quebec say the EI changes unfairly target seasonal workers, a notion the Prime Minister has rejected. Nonetheless, Nova Scotia will push for “ensuring workers have opportunities to participate in our growing economy while employers have the skilled work force they need to grow their business,” Premier Darrell Dexter said.

Mr. Ghiz said any changes to EI must still allow seasonal workers to use it. “Who’s going to operate our fish plants? Who’s going to work on our farms so we have potatoes to process so that you can enjoy potatoes? Or our oyster industry? Or our mussel industry? These are things where we don’t operate 365 days a year,” he said, adding the federal government is “implementing EI changes without really consulting the provinces.”

CARBON, WINE AND CHRISTY CLARK

With the premiers meeting in Ontario’s wine country, Ms. Clark came prepared – each of her six-person delegation brought the maximum two bottles of wine, leaving her 12 to dole out to each of her fellow premiers.

Ms. Clark is pushing for Ontario and Quebec to open their borders so residents of each province can buy directly from the more than 200 wineries in B.C. A federal law last year aimed to open up interprovincial wine purchasing. Some provinces, however, continue to shut their borders. The B.C. Premier is on a mission to open them.

Ms. Clark will also push other premiers to follow B.C.’s lead on implementing a wide-ranging carbon tax, which has led to a 17.4-per-cent drop in carbon emissions, according to one report released this week.

THE SENATE’S FATE

Mr. Wall has lately been voted Canada’s most popular premier, and he’s picked an unpopular subject – the Senate. Mr. Wall’s party voted this year to support abolishing the Senate altogether. The legal path to doing so is murky at best, but Mr. Wall says it would almost certainly require provincial input. As such, he is urging his fellow premiers to consider the issue, and pass resolutions on it to spur the demise of the embattled Red Chamber.

“It’s not in the top-10 issues for Saskatchewan people, but obviously it will surprise nobody here that I’m going to be raising our position [favouring] abolition,” Mr. Wall said.

Mr. Wall, however, might have trouble wooing support. Quebec has little interest in weighing in on the subject. “Reforming federal institutions is not an objective of our government,” Ms. Marois’s spokesperson, Marie Barrette, said in an e-mail. “Our mandate is to defend the interests of Quebec.”

Manitoba has called for meaningful reform or abolition, but the Senate is “not a priority for us at this meeting,” Mr. Selinger said.

THE FUTURE OF THE CPP

How much should Canadians be forced to save for retirement? That’s the question that will be posed by Ms. Wynne, who favours overhauls to the Canada Pension Plan that would consider bigger mandatory deductions to fund bigger payouts.

Other premiers, however, are cool to the idea. Saskatchewan would rather pursue pooled registered pension plans, which allow private companies to develop and sustain their own pension programs. Ms. Redford said she doesn’t want any CPP increases while the economy continues to stumble.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has been discussing CPP changes with provincial colleagues since at least 2008, but no proposal has won broad support.

Talks are, as such, expected to continue.

POWER IN THE NORTH

The Yukon needs power, literally. Canada’s western-most territory will use the meeting to seek allies in its push for help in spurring an expansion of its power system. “With more energy infrastructure, what we can do is unlock a lot of opportunities for more economic growth,” Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski said in an interview.

Mr. McLeod agreed the NWT needs “more energy, [and] cheaper forms of power so that we can have more development.”

Mr. McLeod also plans to push for the North to begin hosting Council of the Federation meetings. “I think it would signal we’re an important part of the federation. That, as a territory, we’re on the same playing field as the other provinces and territories,” he said.

Nunavut, meanwhile, also plans on raising its pressing need for energy, but its population being so spread out makes its case different than that of Mr. Pasloski. Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak also plans to seek the premiers’ support for devolution, which would see the territory be given province-like control over its natural resources.

With a report from Shawn McCarthy

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