Stephen Harper has ended his freeze-out of Kathleen Wynne, meeting with her Monday for the first time in more than a year. The Prime Minister, in Toronto to watch Canada battle Russia for world junior hockey gold, held a tête-à-tête with the Ontario Premier before the game.
Mr. Harper had refused to sit down with Ms. Wynne since Dec. 5, 2013 – apparently because he was upset over her repeated attacks on his government's infrastructure and pension policies. The Tories, meanwhile, have taken regular potshots at the Ontario Liberals over the province's $12.5-billion deficit.
Facing an election later this year, in which he badly needs to hold seats in Ontario, Mr. Harper seems determined to defuse potential controversies. Hours before his confab with Ms. Wynne, he also demoted embattled cabinet minister Julian Fantino.
The Prime Minister's office agreed to Ms. Wynne's long-standing meeting request last Friday, an Ontario government source said, and arrangements were swiftly made for the Monday sit-down at 6.15 p.m. at the Royal York hotel.
At the top of the agenda was federal help building infrastructure. The province wants Ottawa to contribute $1-billion for a road or rail line to the Ring of Fire mineral deposit, as well as help pay for several other projects, such as widening highways and expanding the GO regional rail network.
The pair also discussed helping expand Ontario's manufacturing sector, improving First Nations' drinking water and tearing down barriers to interprovincial trade.
In a sharp change of tone from recent months, Ms. Wynne gushed afterward that the meeting was a "positive step forward."
"A collaborative partnership between Ontario and the federal government will help expand opportunity and security for the people of Ontario and all Canadians. I am confident that today's meeting can mark the beginning of such a partnership," she said in a statement.
Mr. Harper's side was more subdued.
"The leaders agreed that they would remain in touch on these and other issues important to Ontarians and Canadians," his spokesman, Jason MacDonald, wrote in a brief e-mail.
The federal Conservatives and Ontario Liberals have a notoriously complicated relationship. While they have regularly poked each other in the eye publicly to score points with their respective bases, they have managed to work together over the years on such things as a co-operative securities regulator.
But Ms. Wynne's targeting of Mr. Harper during the last provincial election – which Liberal insiders admit was mostly done to distract reporters from the gas-plant scandal – seemed to strike a nerve. After Mr. Harper ignored Ms. Wynne's request for a meeting last fall, he accused her of focusing on "confrontation."
The Premier, meanwhile, suggested her volleys at Mr. Harper are just part of the political game, and he was taking them too personally.
"This isn't about Stephen Harper's feelings," she told The Canadian Press last month.
While Mr. Harper and Ms. Wynne may find common ground on such issues as autos – Ottawa and Queen's Park have teamed up in the past to offer financial help to manufacturers – other areas seem less promising. Ontario, for instance, wants enhanced national pension benefits, but Mr. Harper argues higher pension premiums would damage the economy.
The pair are also at odds over infrastructure. Ms. Wynne wants a steady stream of federal money, while Ottawa prefers to send money on a project-by-project basis. But Ms. Wynne has indicated she will play ball with the federal government on infrastructure, submitting several requests for project funding to the Building Canada Fund.