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A letter released on Friday and signed by Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston, who chairs a group made up of Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders, urges Ottawa to respect provincial jurisdiction.Kelly Clark/The Canadian Press

Canada’s premiers are warning Ottawa against encroaching on provincial jurisdiction, days after the federal budget unveiled strict conditions their governments must meet in order to access billions of dollars in spending on housing and other policy areas that traditionally fall within the provinces’ purview.

A letter released on Friday and signed by Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston, who chairs the Council of the Federation, a group made up of Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders, says Ottawa should avoid dictating terms in areas the Constitution reserves for provincial governments. It adds that the federal government should pledge to hand over fair shares of funding to provinces and territories that don’t want to comply with Ottawa’s demands.

“The federal government must refrain from overreaching into provincial and territorial jurisdiction, particularly in the areas of health, education, and housing,” the premiers’ letter says. “Every government should have the right to receive ongoing financial compensation representing their fair share. This includes provinces and territories that reserve the right to require unconditional federal funding.”

Asked about the letter at an appearance in Victoria on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shot back. Citing child care as an example, he said “certain Conservative provinces” had resisted his move to fund cheaper care across the country. But, he said, parents who have saved thousands of dollars as a result of the federal spending are thankful for Ottawa’s role in putting conditions on how its money is used.

“I’d always rather work with provinces. But if we have to, I will go around them and be there for Canadians,” the Prime Minister told reporters.

He was unapologetic about taking a similar approach on housing, saying that people living under provincial governments that have been “unambitious” on the issue need Ottawa to step in and fund municipalities directly. (Under the Constitution, cities are the purview of the provinces.)

Trudeau, Poilievre trade attacks over the federal budget

Among the new spending announced in the federal budget this week were billions of dollars for provinces that agree to freeze the fees municipalities charge developers. They must also agree to loosen zoning rules, in order to allow more fourplexes to be built. Both measures are intended to boost the supply of homes.

Ottawa has already been handing some housing funding directly to cities that comply with federal requirements. Alberta responded by introducing new legislation to block the practice, similar to a law already in place in Quebec.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has refused to accept the federal demand for sweeping approval of fourplexes, despite a similar policy being recommended by his own government’s expert housing task force. But unlike Alberta’s Danielle Smith, he has not gone so far as to say he could block municipalities from receiving federal funds directly from Ottawa.

Mr. Ford and his Housing Minister told Ontario municipalities this week that the provincial government hopes to co-operate with them in talks with Ottawa on the new housing funding, as part of a “Team Ontario” approach.

Marianne Meed Ward, the mayor of Burlington, Ont., and chair of the Ontario Big City Mayors caucus, said municipalities welcome a seat at the table with the province and the federal government.

But she also said municipalities have issues with the idea of conditions being imposed on funding, whether the conditions come from Ottawa or from the province. The Ontario government has itself rewarded cities with cash for hitting provincially mandated housing-start targets.

She also said many Ontario cities have already implemented new rules to allow more fourplexes, and that municipalities want their share of the new federal money whether they have made that change or not.

“Municipalities know our communities best,” Ms. Meed Ward said at a news conference after the Ontario Big City Mayors annual general meeting on Friday. “There’s no one-size-fits-all. And we would prefer fewer strings attached for any funding.”

Peter Graefe, an associate professor of political science at McMaster University in Hamilton, said in an interview that Mr. Trudeau’s approach to federalism is more interventionist and involves less consultation with provinces than the approaches of any of his predecessors going back to at least the 1990s. The result, in Friday’s letter, has been some pushback from the provinces, he said.

“If you have a very strict understanding of the Constitution, they’re overreaching,” Dr. Graefe said. “They’re reaching into areas where the Constitution doesn’t say they have the power to do it.”

The premiers’ letter says governments should “return to a cooperative approach,” and that housing issues cannot be solved by Ottawa and municipalities alone, without provincial involvement. The premiers also urge the federal government to do more to address immigration and the number of asylum seekers in the country.

The letter notes the federal budget came out after provincial budgets had been set, and that there was “limited and inconsistent outreach from the federal government” beforehand. The premiers also single out a lack of new cash for infrastructure projects and criticize federal cuts to funding for work force training.

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