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Before Prime Minister Stephen Harper faces Justin Trudeau and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, he must decide whether to ease the dispute with Kathleen Wynne – or campaign against a premier, too.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

When Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Paul Davis strolled into a meeting with Stephen Harper at his Langevin Block office on Friday, Ontario's Kathleen Wynne was getting a message, too.

After barely two months as Premier, Mr. Davis had a one-on-one to talk over a dispute. John Tory, Toronto's new mayor, had a meeting on Thursday. But Ms. Wynne was sending letters while Mr. Harper declined to meet her.

There is a cold-shoulder war between the leaders of the country and its most populous province. For the first time since another Newfoundlander, Danny Williams, railed against changes to the Atlantic Accords in 2007, a premier is taking on the role of Ottawa's provincial opposition.

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Who started it? To ask is to underline the kind of sandbox squabble this has become. But it is also a clash of leaders with very different ideas about politics and how the federation should work. And this dispute is with the place that is key to Mr. Harper's re-election hopes.

For the Prime Minister, that is a danger. Ontario was where his Conservatives won the seats that gave them a majority government in the 2011 election, and he needs the lion's share of the province's seats to hold power. And Ms. Wynne is not just needling him over a meeting, she is suggesting he has abandoned leadership in the federation, in areas such as pensions, infrastructure and climate change. Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau pushes those messages too.

Mr. Harper has done business with premiers despite political differences. With Ms. Wynne, there is mistrust.

Ms. Wynne publicly revealed details of discussions about pensions at their last meeting, a year ago, saying Mr. Harper "smirked" about retirees' needs. Mr. Harper's circle insists she misrepresented the talk, including the smirk, and says recounting private meetings is not right. "That's not how we operate," a Conservative source said. Ms. Wynne wrote to request a meeting last month, but did not keep it private, the Conservative said: "It's a public relations tactic intended to fuel conflict rather than conversation."

Mr. Harper declined to meet, and lectured Ms. Wynne that Ontario has many problems to fix, suggesting ministers meet instead. So, she wrote again, as did six ministers. Grandstanding? Ms. Wynne's insiders they never expected a meeting request to blow up. "We were taken aback. We didn't expect him to say no," a senior Ontario Liberal said.

Political tactics are obviously at play. And a lot of suspicions. Ontario's provincial parties are more linked to federal counterparts than most. Mr. Harper's cabinet has always had Queen's Park veterans, such as John Baird and the late Jim Flaherty. Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Wynne stump for each other's candidates, and their aides have close friendships. The Tories think Ms. Wynne is on Team Trudeau.

While the two Liberal leaders' aides give each other a "heads-up" about plans, they are usually on the same page, a senior Ontario Liberal said.

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But it's not just tactics. Both sides feel aggrieved, said John Duffy, principal with government-relations firm Strategy Corp., who worked on campaigns for Mr. Tory and former prime minister Paul Martin. "The federal folks believe truly that Wynne's government is picking a fight for no good reason, and Wynne's people believe Harper is nursing an ideological vendetta."

For Ontario, the seeds of mistrust came a year ago, at a federal-provincial finance ministers' meeting. Ms. Wynne's finance minister, Charles Sousa went to the dinner the night before hosted by Mr. Flaherty, which includes an unusual annual ritual: Ministers are handed an envelope containing the figure for their province's transfer payments for the next year. It's crucial to budgets of provinces that receive equalization – the ministers get only the numbers for their own province. Mr. Sousa knew his was bad news.

Ottawa instituted "total transfer protection" in 2009; so, if a province's transfers went down from one year to next, the feds would make up the difference. But Ottawa stopped that last year, the first time it would have helped Ontario, and the province's transfers fell $640-million. The federal government said TTP was always to be temporary – but Ms. Wynne's government felt targeted. "That was a big deal for us," a senior Ontario Liberal said.

In May, Ms. Wynne kicked off her election campaign attacking Mr. Harper, not provincial Tory leader Tim Hudak, on pensions, infrastructure and the Ring of Fire development in Northern Ontario – issues of shared jurisdiction. The Liberals wanted to portray Ms. Wynne as spokeswoman for Ontario, believing it would make Mr. Hudak look unwilling to stand up.

Behind the politicking is a gulf between the two on how the federation should work. Ms. Wynne sees herself in Ontario's traditional central role in the federation – an activist federation. Mr. Harper believes governments should get their own houses in order, and work together when needed. Now, he faces a vocal challenge in his dealings with the provinces.

Mr. Harper has an election soon. Before he faces Mr. Trudeau and the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, he must decide whether to ease the dispute with Ms. Wynne – or campaign against a premier, too.

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