Employment Minister Jason Kenney is extending an olive branch to the provinces after the federal budget set a firm deadline to ram through the controversial Canada Job Grant program.
The move comes as provinces fire back at Ottawa over its plan to launch the program unilaterally, saying the move could lead to the cancellation of other programs and hurt some job-seekers.
In Tuesday's budget, Ottawa announced it will start the Canada Job Grant on April 1 unless provinces strike a deal to take part. However, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Kenney said for the first time that he is open to delaying the launch.
"If we come to an agreement, there may be some flexibility on the start date. But we have to figure out whether we've got agreements or not [before April 1]," Mr. Kenney said. British Columbia, expects a counterproposal from him next week.
The timing of the job grant program is among several concerns the provinces had about the budget. For example, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has warned that Quebec is getting special treatment because it has been allowed to keep an immigration program that was scuttled in the rest of the country.
Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier accused Finance Minister Jim Flaherty of "blackmail" for trying to push through the jobs program, which Quebec says would slash $70-million from the $116-million it receives for training each year. "I don't believe in their capacity to put in place a new employment program in Quebec. … Quebec is already doing this work," Mr. Cloutier said.
Quebec Labour Minister Agnès Maltais added: "What they are proposing is completely crazy."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne assembled a group of civil servants on Wednesday to list for journalists the federal decisions she says shortchange her province, for instance how to finance training programs that would lose money because of the new job grant.
Without a deal to implement the program, "that's going to be again another problem where we are going to have to decide if we step into a gap that has been left by the federal government," Ms. Wynne said, adding Ottawa is "abdicating its responsibility" on many issues, leaving provinces with the bill.
"We're seeing a pattern of the federal government getting out of … the business of nation-building," she said.
Manitoba Finance Minister Jennifer Howard lamented that the budget did not change the population estimate that Ottawa uses to calculate the province's federal transfers, which she said is too low, costing $100-million each year. Statistics Canada has said no error was made.
Manitoba remains hopeful the provinces will strike a deal on the job grant, or "those people who need skills training the most will be left out in the cold," Ms. Howard said.
British Columbia's Minister for Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, Shirley Bond, called the federal threat to go ahead unilaterally with the plan "unfortunate" and said provinces and territories "remain united in believing that we cannot make changes to the program that will directly impact some of the most vulnerable people in our country."
While Mr. Wall's government in Saskatchewan is also concerned about the job grant program, on Wednesday it raised another complaint. The budget cancelled the Immigrant Investor Program, a fast-track to permanent residency in Canada in exchange for an investment with a provincial government, which Saskatchewan said it had used to address a housing shortage. However, Quebec will be allowed to continue its immigrant investor program under the Canada-Quebec Accord, which gives the province authority over its programs. "We have, again, Quebec being treated differently than the rest of the country," Mr. Wall said.
The job grant would offer $15,000 in training cash, funded by government and employers. Mr. Kenney insisted that this week's "noise" from the provinces masks the fact that talks on the program continue as the government rolls out other initiatives to train youth and older workers. "We think a blended approach makes sense," he said.