The federal government's Canada Job Grant proposals are in trouble, officials and opposition critics are warning on the eve of Jason Kenney's meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts.
Seven months after Ottawa first proposed the program in its March, 2013, budget, the minister of employment and social development can expect a litany of complaints when he sits down with his colleagues in Toronto on Friday.
Quebec has even threatened to opt out of the program.
"They're out on a branch on this one, a very fragile branch," Brad Duguid, Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, said this week.
Provinces and territories are particularly opposed to Kenney's plan to slice $300-million – about 60 per cent – from the so-called Labour Market Agreement implemented by the Conservatives in 2007.
That initiative provides funds to train unemployed workers not eligible for employment insurance and is aimed at aboriginals, immigrants, women, youth, older workers, people with disabilities and those with low literacy levels.
"They're planning on funding this Canada Job Grant on the backs of our most vulnerable workers," said Duguid, adding that the program would leave Ontario on the hook for $232-million.
"That would be very harmful to those programs and to those vulnerable, marginalized workers if the federal government was to follow through."
The Labour Market Agreement has been a big hit with the provinces and territories, with provincial officials pointing to a recent joint evaluation with Ottawa that determined those participating in the plan doubled their chances of landing jobs and keeping them.
But Kenney has often been dismissive of the fund, calling it ineffective. His office has also suggested it plays a part in a supposed nationwide "skills shortage," a state of affairs described in a recent TD Economics report as being overstated.
In Toronto on Thursday, Kenney took issue with Duguid's remarks, calling them "factually inaccurate."
"By definition, the people who benefit from the training though the current labour market transfer are not workers," he said.
"That's the whole point: they've not been working for at least six years and many, if not most of them, are habitual welfare recipients."
If provinces and territories want to train their welfare recipents, he added, they should pay for it out of their welfare and social budgets because the money provided by Ottawa isn't meant to offset their welfare costs.
"We have an obligation to Canadian taxpayers to ensure that our training dollars are spent to actually get people to jobs and to help fill some of the skills gaps that exist in our economy, and that's what we're trying to do."
Kenney reiterated his misgivings about the current set-up, saying too much of the money transferred to the provinces from Ottawa is used for "the sake of training" and doesn't result in permanent employment.
"Bringing somebody in for the fourth or fifth time to teach them how to write their resume, or dress for an interview, or set their alarm clock in the morning with no job at the end of it, frankly, is not a very sensible use of the federal taxpayer's dollars."
As proposed in the budget, the Canada Job Grant would provide up to $15,000 to any business offering a training program. A third of that money would come each from the federal government, the provincial or territorial government and the business itself.
Kenney recently suggested the cost could be chopped for small businesses, saying they could pay less if bigger firms agreed to pay more. Ottawa has also proposed to the provinces that the program could be phased in, with only a required 10 per cent implementation in its first year, beginning on April 1, 2014.
On Thursday, Kenney said he's listening to "constructive criticism" from the provinces and has replied with a "long list of proposed flexibilities in how it would be delivered."
He said those suggestions include allowing the provinces to draw on another federal fund, the Labour Market Development Agreement, to pay for the program, and to allow small businesses to band together to make it "administratively easier for them" to participate in the Canada Job Grant.
"We want to have an agreement with the provinces; ideally we'd like them to deliver this," he said.
Duguid, however, said he's seen scant evidence from Ottawa so far that it's open to rethinking the job grant program. He's only personally heard from Kenney once about it, he added.
"The minister has talked about flexibility and they've taken some very minor measures, but nothing that's close yet to where the provinces would want them to go."
Rodger Cuzner, Kenney's Liberal critic in the House of Commons, said there's been no consultation with the provinces on the program.
"They've spent millions of dollars advertising this Edsel, and it's being thrashed by the provinces," Cuzner said. "Had there been new money allocated with the program, it may have stood a chance."