Provincial and territorial leaders put on a show of unity on Monday by agreeing to press Ottawa for more health-care money and better aid for resource-dependent provinces, while trying to keep long-simmering differences over issues such as pipelines from boiling over.
The 13 premiers, who make up the Council of the Federation, met at a hotel near Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, just outside Toronto. Among their demands, issued in a joint statement and sent off in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is for Ottawa to increase the cash it hands provinces for health care by 5.2 per cent a year, up from the current rate of 3 per cent.
The premiers also said that any federal pharmacare plan – pledged by the Liberals in the fall election campaign – “must be developed in partnership with provinces and territories,” and have an opt-out for provinces.
The premiers also called for changes to the fiscal stabilization program, which provides cash to provinces facing economic hardship. They want Ottawa to remove a cap on the amount of aid, and allow more money to flow to provinces, such as Alberta, suffering from declines in their resource industries.
The meeting was held just days before Mr. Trudeau and his new cabinet return to Parliament for Thursday’s Throne Speech, which will lay out their priorities. October’s election reduced the Liberals to a minority in the Commons and left them without a single seat in Alberta or Saskatchewan and with a renewed Bloc Québécois.
The premiers expect to sit down with Mr. Trudeau as early as January. Their host for Monday’s meeting, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, has in recent weeks frequently called for unity in the face of the national divisions highlighted by the election.
“This alone, right today, sends a very clear message … that we may have our differences, but Canada is united,” Mr. Ford told a news conference after the meeting. “We’re a united nation. And as you’ve seen at this meeting, when some of the provinces are struggling, we’re all there."
The joint statement does not mention the federal government’s carbon tax, which was not on the meeting’s agenda, even though Mr. Ford, Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe continue to fight it in court.
Nor does the document mention the word pipelines, a source of a disagreement for the premiers, with Quebec and British Columbia long at loggerheads with Alberta over the issue of building new ones. Mr. Trudeau has also faced criticism from the NDP and environmentalists over his government’s purchase of the much-delayed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, which is meant to carry more Alberta oil to the coast of B.C., where it can be shipped to global markets.
The premiers’ statement does ask Ottawa for changes to its environmental assessment regime, which is used to approve pipelines and other projects. The document also calls for expanding international trade to allow natural resources to get to global markets, but only urges Ottawa to work to eliminate U.S. protectionist measures on softwood lumber and infrastructure.
Asked whether this meant all the premiers agree on new pipelines, Alberta’s Premier said the joint statement was “plain English.” He said the Trans Mountain pipeline has already been approved by Ottawa, despite being subject to “a lot of legal harassment” by “largely U.S.-funded special interests,” meaning environmental groups. And he said the project, and Alberta’s large oil reserves, will bring economic benefits to all Canadians.
“Either we get those resources to market, or we abandon global energy markets to the Saudis, and the OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] dictatorships, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” Mr. Kenney said.
But it was clear that Premiers who oppose pipelines had not changed their tunes. B.C.'s John Horgan said it was important to discuss issues and work together, but pointed to his province’s Supreme Court case seeking clarity on whether B.C. can regulate oil shipments across its borders, which is set to be heard next year.
Quebec Premier François Legault also registered his disagreement: “The only thing I can add is that you know our positions on pipelines and we haven’t discussed this subject."
Some topics, however, were off limits. Mr. Ford shut down a question from a reporter about Quebec’s Bill 21, a law that bans many public-sector workers in the province from wearing religious symbols or clothing. The Ontario Legislature recently passed an NDP motion – supported by his own Progressive Conservative Party – condemning the law.
“We’re here to talk about common ground and we respect the decisions that each province makes,” Mr. Ford said.
No other premiers weighed in, although Manitoba’s Brian Pallister has in the past called the law “dangerous” and “un-Canadian.”
A spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who also serves as Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, said the government wants to work collaboratively with the provinces and territories on a range of issues, including fiscal stabilization, as well as climate change, health care, pharmacare and “market access for natural resources.”
In a premeeting photo op Monday, Mr. Ford put on a Winnipeg Blue Bombers jersey, the result of a lost Grey Cup bet with Mr. Pallister. Mr. Ford also handed out personalized Toronto Maple Leafs hockey jerseys to the visiting premiers, some of whom reluctantly accepted them.
With a report from Bill Curry
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