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New Brunswick Premier David Alward, left, and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark gather with other premiers to have their official group portrait taken at the Council of the Federation summer meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Thursday, July 25, 2013.Aaron Lynett/The Canadian Press

The nation's premiers are presenting a united front on the federal government's proposed Canada Job Grant, demanding protection for existing skills training programs and the right to opt out of Ottawa's plans.

The unanimity, reached after several hours of talks at a Council of the Federation meeting Thursday, represents a small victory for Ontario and Quebec, which have demanded changes to the proposed program.

The Canada Job Grant would provide federal money to companies to train workers for specific jobs. The employers and the provinces would have to match the funds. The goal is to make sure people are trained for available jobs.

However, Ontario has argued that the federal government must not divert cash from existing training programs – especially those that help vulnerable people, such as disabled or First Nations workers – to pay for the Canada Job Grant. Quebec's government has said that the grant represents federal meddling in an area of provincial jurisdiction and other provinces have fretted over where to find the provincial money to match the federal dollars.

"There was really unanimity of concern about the Canada Job Grant, the lack of consultation on it and the impact it will have if it is implemented the way it is across the country," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne told reporters during a break in meetings in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. "There really was a very strong feeling that the program as it exists won't work."

In a communiqué, the provinces are demanding that the federal government maintain its funding for existing programs.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and New Brunswick Premier David Alward will put together a more detailed proposal on how the program can work, and will report back in the fall.

The premiers are asking for their ministers to meet with federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney to sort everything out. Mr. Kenney plans on meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts in the fall to discuss details on how to implement the grant. It is scheduled to begin its gradual phase-in on April 1, 2014.

So far, the federal government has left the door open to modifications, saying it would work with the provinces to decide how to implement the grant.

In a statement, Mr. Kenney defended the grant.

"The Canada Job Grant has been widely praised by a variety of employer groups and stakeholders across the country," the minister said.

"The Canada Job Grant will bring federal and provincial and territorial governments together with employers to invest in skills training for unemployed and underemployed Canadians so that they are qualified to fill the high-quality, well-paying jobs available," he said.

Dan Kelly, the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said training grants are better than the status quo. He accused the premiers of taking an "appalling" stand.

"The feds do need to be flexible. Not all of the provincial programs are terrible. Most are," he said. The benefit of the training grant, according to Mr. Kelly, is that it gets employers involved in decisions over training. He accused the premiers of being more concerned about protecting the budgets for their own training bureaucracies.

A recent analysis of the Canada Job Grant by the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto and the Caledon Institute of Social Policy questioned whether small employers would even apply for the training grant, a concern the premiers raised.

Mr. Kelly, who advocates for small- and medium-sized businesses, rejected the argument. He said his members spend billions on training, but that it is often informal on-the-job training that could still benefit from a well-crafted training grant.

Ms. Wynne said she is in favour of involving employers in training programs, but that the system must be flexible enough for each province and territory to tailor training to its needs.

If an arrangement cannot be made, the communiqué says, the premiers want the option to pull their provinces out of the jobs grant without losing any federal funding for training.

It's an option Quebec appears keen to exercise.

"[The meeting with Mr. Kenney will] make it clear, in case it wasn't already understood, that the new program is not accepted and make the case that, in certain cases, and it's the case of Quebec, we will not take part in this program if they persist in imposing it," Premier Pauline Marois said.

Individual governments have already written to Ottawa to press for changes to the program.

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