Ontario Premier Doug Ford says conditions Ottawa is imposing on its proposed $14-billion COVID-19 bailout package are holding up an agreement with the provinces and territories that would allow the cash to flow.
“Just cut a cheque, give us the flexibility,” Mr. Ford said Thursday. “The magical word is flexibility.”
Talks on a federal relief package for provinces and cash-starved municipalities have dragged on for months, even after Toronto Mayor John Tory and other local leaders across Canada warned that municipalities may be forced to slash services and dramatically hike property taxes without billions in financial aid.
A $14-billion offer from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, first unveiled a month ago, was immediately dismissed by provinces and cities as inadequate. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has said cities and towns across Canada alone will need at least $10-billion to recover from the budget holes caused by COVID-19 lockdowns.
Ottawa’s offer also came with a long list of areas on which the money must be spent, including the costs of contact tracing for new cases of COVID-19, protections for vulnerable populations, increases to health care system capacity, child care, personal protective equipment, a new paid sick-leave program and a bailout for municipalities.
Mr. Ford said last month that Ontario alone needed $23-billion and rejected Ottawa’s desire for a paid sick-leave plan. He said Thursday that Ontario was willing to spend the money on the federal government’s priorities, but that different provinces have different needs and know best where to spend the funds.
While praising the efforts of Mr. Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Mr. Ford said allowing more flexibility would result in a deal.
And he said he was alone in championing the financial plight of municipalities in talks with the premiers and Ottawa. “We’re committed to giving the municipalities more money. To be very frank, I was the one who brought it up. It probably wouldn’t have even been mentioned, throughout the country, if I didn’t keep pushing the table, the premier’s table, and they’ve supported us on getting funding for municipalities.”
He made the comments as his government announced an additional $150-million for municipalities to help with the added costs facing homeless shelters and other agencies that help low-income people. The money falls well short of what Toronto has said it’s already spent moving thousands of homeless people out of its crowded shelters and into hotels to spare them from the pandemic.
On Thursday, Toronto’s mayor called the new money for homelessness encouraging, but acknowledged much more is needed, and urged Ottawa to match it.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. Tory said the impasse over a bailout package for cities had gone on for too long. He said the issue should be separated from federal-provincial wrangling over other funding and volunteered to mediate bilateral talks between Mr. Ford and Mr. Trudeau himself if necessary to get a deal.
Asked for a response to Mr. Ford’s remarks, the Prime Minister’s Office pointed to comments Mr. Trudeau made last Friday, in which he said Ottawa has shown “a great deal of flexibility” in the discussions and that provinces and territories are “dealing with different situations.”
With a report from Laura Stone