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Premiers to face off against Ottawa over 'flawed' job program

On Wednesday, Canada's premiers will gather in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and try to kill the Canada Job Grant before it is born.

That's not the formal wording of the agenda at the annual meeting of the Council of the Federation. But shutting down the proposed new job-training program – of which Employment Minister Jason Kenney was put in charge last week – is a top provincial concern these days.

"It's one of the fundamental priorities of this council," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, host of this week's meeting, said in an interview on Sunday. "We really believe that the provincial governments are best placed to know where [job training] dollars need to be invested."

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Ottawa wants to claw back $300-million of the amount it sends to the provinces to train workers who do not qualify for Employment Insurance, and the Harper government wants the provinces to kick in an additional $300-million, while employers who participate in the Canada Job Grant would also have to contribute a third of the cost. The grant would help employers train workers for vacant jobs.

"It is a lot to ask of provinces to cancel their own ground-tested programs and then to expect them to find substantial new funding from their own budgets to pay for an untested new federal program in an area of provincial jurisdiction, announced with no warning or consultation," observed a report from the Caledon Institute of Social Policy and the Mowat Centre.

The study concludes that the Canada Job Grant is "a flawed program that should be abandoned before it begins" because it would simply hand free money to major employers that already have training programs, while smaller businesses would not have the resources to take advantage of it.

Mr. Kenney was not available on Sunday for comment. But the Conservatives have pointed out in the past that existing provincial programs are not matching workers without jobs to employers begging for workers, especially in the skilled trades.

Provincial programs can, in fact, encourage workers to stay in places where jobs are few when they should be on the move. Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter made that point inadvertently on the weekend in a CBC interview.

Cutting funding for provincial job training, while compelling unemployed workers to move to where jobs are or lose Employment Insurance, uproots communities, he complained. "They leave that community and they never come back," he said. "They are eroding the populations out of rural Nova Scotia."

To which the Conservatives might reply that if the rural Nova Scotia economy cannot sustain its current work force without Employment Insurance and other federal subsidies, then those workers should move to Saskatchewan or Alberta, where labour shortages are a growing concern.

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Indeed, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Alberta Premier Alison Redford are expected to offer only token support for the provincial protest.

Nonetheless, the premiers have a point. For decades, federal governments have proposed shared-cost programs – everything from health care to subsidized housing – convincing or coercing provincial governments to sign on. Then Ottawa cuts the funding in pursuit of the next Big Idea, leaving the provincial governments in the lurch.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper used to condemn such federal meddling in areas of provincial jurisdiction. But it appears the Canada Job Grant would do exactly that.

The new program is supposed to come into effect on April 1, 2014. Mr. Kenney has until then to persuade provincial governments to sign on, or to amend the program.

"My hope is that he will engage with us," said Ms. Wynne, who called for a "respectful dialogue" between Ottawa and the provinces on the issue.

Mr. Kenney might welcome that dialogue. Because as it stands, the chances of getting the provinces to support the Canada Job Grant hover between slim and hopeless.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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